The Familiarity of Core Conservative Values

I remember talking to one blogger who is politically on the right and he told me that what got his goat was relativism with regards to poverty, and that the left perpetuated this myth that poverty should be perceived relatively and scorned the notion that while in the face of massive third world poverty, the left continued to go on about the rich west’s poor. It sounded close to being a sensible take on western whinging, if it weren’t for the fact that there is a genuine level of poverty in the UK – and the rest of the West, as it goes.

It was very early in the morning this conversation, I was on my way to work and really not up for talking but I said something about there being a small band of people, who may well be on the left, but are often too stupid to sensibly be bracketed by any political stripe, who really can’t stand the fact that some progress has been made in the last 13 years to curb inequality. Which I still stand by, but there were a couple of things I wasn’t aware of, or didn’t have within my intellectual tool belt, so to speak, at the time, that I do have now.

I have drawn some of these things from the latest Demos Progressive Conservative essay, entitled Everyday Equality, which deals exclusively with trying to demonstrate the importance of inequality and the wealth gap and how this can be the playing ground for the future of Conservatism.

According to the document, Thatcher in her last Question Time of her period in office said to one of her Labour questioners that she didn’t care about the gap between the rich and poor, but simply cared about the wealth of the latter. By and large this is not the view of the Tories, and neither is it, according to the authors, the real mode of Conservatism at all, but rather neo-liberalism without an evidence base.

David Willetts MP, Shadow minister for Universities and Skills, who has written the foreword to the document, makes notes of a challenge by the biologist writer Matt Ridley, who anecdotally mentions a farmer who owns 2 cows among a community of farmers who own just 1 – the primary farmer feels like a King, but what about the farmer who owns 3 cows among a community of farmers with 4 cows – does he feel like a King? For the Progressive Conservatives relativity means something; a sign of the Conservatism of nation, and not neo-liberalism.

The author introduces the Gini Coefficient, a measure of wealth inequality developed by the Italian statistician Corrado Gini and published in his 1912 paper “Variability and Mutability”. Not only does it show that New Labour has nothing to shout about in terms of bridging the overall rich/poor gap, or curbing wealth inequality (though it can be proud of its welfare record – now potentially under threat), but that the measurement (shown in a figure on pg. 20 of the Demos document) testifies the claims by the authors of The Spirit Level; that happiness be measured on a bridge in that gap, not national wealth. Not only is relativism important for the progressive conservatives, but so too is the happiness levels, which are lowered by wealth inequality in the UK.

One of the main points of the document is to promote those nice things that the Conservative party have been talking about; happiness, social mobility, localism, and say that though Labour also talk about these things, Tories will actually do them. It becomes weak here, and this charge will not be helped by the fact that a number of words are dedicated to the Tories’ policies on the voluntary sector (pg. 21) in light of recent plans by the Westminster City Partnership to end their partnerships with the voluntary sector – this is not the fault of the authors, but it does point to how tough they have it, to sell these ideas as policy ideas, not only to the old hat right-whingers, but Cameron’s so-called new Tories.

The other main point of the document is to admit that “[m]ost conservatives do not have a ‘first principle’ problem with there being differences between what people are paid but we do recognise that the impact of everyday inequalities is negative and substantial” (p.26), in order to show that Conservatives have, as opposed to the left, an evidence-based understanding and interaction with the detriments of inequality, whereas the left have always had a (mere) sense of its errs. But there is a reason why the left have had this sense, and that is because of the evidence (which did exist before The Spirit Level – this just happened to be the book that made the European, post neoliberal right finally listen) they have accrued to suggest that inequality is the cause of many negative effects in society.

So it is admirable of the author and his team to divide and lead the way on what the Tories should stand for (I’ve never understood why infighting must be disgraced in a political party – it’s what the left are good at) and in the process scorn at the lagging right of the opposition [1], but it is hard not to cringe at the parting conclusion that on this issue the Disraelite progressive Tories hold the monopoly on evidence-based research on inequality, when this has been the breeding ground for the left since their time began.

[1] For example, on the subject of community the author says “although stereotype happy Tories may find it difficult to care deeply about uneven distribution in and of itself, they can pay it attention if they care about more traditional conservative issues.” (p.21) This isn’t just mere criticism, the search is for a counter-hegemonic conservatism.

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