For many years, Leftists have howled and giggled down any attempt by conservatives to defend their political positions on moral grounds. The way Leftists want the political debate to be framed is between those who are moral but need to prove themselves capable (the Left) and those who are wicked but sometimes considered necessary when the Left proves incapable (the Right). Far too many folk on the Right of politics accept this same calculus — rather revelling in the idea that they are nasty-but-necessary.
Indeed, even when Conservatives believe themselves morally right, they often caution their fellow-travellers that it would be politically better to concede the moral ground and fight the political battle elsewhere. One current example of this concerns this week’s vote on the Labour party’s Queen’s Speech amendment that would have ended the public sector pay cap. The government defeated that motion by a handy 14 votes. Conservative MPs cheered. There has been quite a bit of criticism of them for doing so.
The idea is that Conservatives might think it’s a sad necessity to cap public sector pay, but they should not be proud or cheerful that they succeed in achieving it.
Let’s set aside, for the moment, any qualms you or I might have about the specifics of the public sector pay cap. Let’s assume that we agreed with the policy. How should we characterise the morality of it? A public sector pay cap helps keep public spending and hence taxes down. Voting against raising public sector pay means voting against tax rises for millions of ordinary people. Opposing ordinary people’s taxes going up is a perfectly morally praiseworthy thing to do. Why should the Conservatives feel ashamed of doing that or feel unable to celebrate if they manage to stop taxes rising for millions of ordinary people? Conservative MPs should be pleased and proud and cheerful to win through doing what they believe to be morally right.
Similarly, when discussing Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to requisition the private property of those who owned houses in Kensington that they did not always live in, I wrote various articles and gave interviews saying that it was immoral to seize other people’s property. Many folk attempted to howl that idea down. They might listen to an argument that said requisitioning private property is inefficient or has bad incentive consequences or might damage the economy, but they didn’t even accept they should debate a claim that the conservative position was the moral one.
Conservatism rests upon a series of fundamental moral claims. It is morally proper to have the freedom to work for the employer one chooses, doing the job one wants rather than some “socially useful” task allocated centrally. It is morally proper for me to use my labour to create property. It is morally proper for me to use my property as I see fit, to the benefit or myself or my family or my coreligionists or my favoured charitable causes, rather than my property being ultimately owned by society as a whole and to be used for society’s purposes. It is morally proper for me to favour my children or other close relatives over other people, if I choose to do that — e.g. by spending money on my children’s education or by leaving my children an inheritance. It is morally proper for me to be free to trade with others, exchanging property or labour as we choose, rather than as the state dictates. It is morally proper for me to keep my promises, pay my debts and respect chains of command.
Now, of course there are other moral principles as well that sometimes trump those above. I’m not permitted to work as an assassin or to use the business I own to manufacture and distribute synthetic drugs. But those other matters do not undermine or replace the basic morality of family, property and promise/contract that the is the foundation of society and the core of conservative philosophy.
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Politics is not a struggle of the moral-but-dubiously-competent left against the nasty-but-useful right. Those of us on the right of politics have our morals too, and we should not be chary of expressing them.