Can we square moral education with dark spirits?

In his characteristically honest and (mostly) intelligent piece in The Times of May 4th, Tim Montgomerie threatened us with a reawakening of a dark spirit in our culture: the Conservative Party’s reputation for ruthlessness.

I would not cavil at Montgomerie’s assessment of the dangers facing Mr. Cameron. (Mr. Clegg faces somewhat parallel problems with his party, but both for demonology and practical politics that is rather different). But when we listen to those calling for sharper emphasis on ‘Tory values’ a problem of both presentation and content arises. One of the alleged distractions for the Government from ‘Tory values’ is the proposal for gay marriage. This is not the place to debate the merits of adjusting the concept of marriage, but it is the place to note that ‘Tory values’ are meant to carry moral content. That applies indeed to pusuit of jobs and economic growth, which conservative apologists will tell you is about supporting hard work, discipline, enterprise, and support for one’s family. (Left apologists will almost certainly tell you that pursuit of jobs and economic growth is about something else.)

This is where the trouble starts. Once you start talking morals or ethics we start X-raying you for hypocrisy. So, if you belong to a party which has acquired a reputation (fair or not) for being ruthlessly focused on power and for readiness to stab people in the back beyond the normal call of politics, your moral stance will not be very convincing. Paradoxically, Nadine Dorries might become the one member trusted by the people just because she speaks out in public during an election campaign!

As is so common with social phenomena, there is no way to prove a direct causal connection, but I would guess the causes of social discipline and personal morality were not exactly helped in the post-World War II era by the Conservative Party’s reputation. Montgomerie needs to reflect that one thing the hard Left were not famous for was underestimating the Conservative Party’s ruthlessness.

This is, of course, a peculiar British problem, although global geopolitics probably give it parallels elsewhere. But once we focus on jobs and economic growth we encounter a universal problem. Just how do we set about curbing debt and reviving secure prosperity in the age of the affluent consumer without creating fresh opportunities for people to squander themselves and their assets on hedonism, vanity, and self-obsession?

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