In part two of my special blogs for the 2017 General Election (read part one here) I’m going to address the question of why I am supporting the Conservatives. This will partly be a positive exhortation that there are good reasons to support the Conservatives, but also to address criticism levied at the government. In my earlier blog I asserted that government has a positive role to play for our good, and that as active participants in a democracy we should seek the election of people who will govern us well and wisely. Nobody disagrees in this objective, but instead disagrees on what good government looks like in practice! (This is also the root of many a frustrated political argument between friends)
One of the most helpful guiding principles I have used to shape my politics is Jesus’ teaching on taxation. He used an expression that has passed beyond the church and into common use: “Give to Caesar, that which is Caesar’s.” What is often left out is the second part: “And give to God, that which is God’s” – just as I stated that government has a positive role to play, I also believe that there are limits to the role of government. I don’t think anyone would dispute this; very few of us would want the government to determine such things as whether we worship a particular god or belief system; whom we should befriend or fall in love with; or at a more banal level, which colour of socks we should wear in the morning! Just as we universally seek good government, we also universally recognise there are limits to government.
Therefore, I can reduce my point to one sentence: “I am a Conservative, because I believe that government is good, but it is also limited.”
To explain this, I should begin by saying that I embrace a wider understanding of what it means to govern society, and believe that ‘government’ in the sense of the power to enact and enforce laws, is only one part of that. Governance is also parents being good parents to their children; it is families and communities supporting one another; it is businesses doing business well. They are all part of looking after our world; but it does not follow that ‘government’ – those who rule over us – should also rule over all of these areas all of the time. Yes, there is a positive role to play, principally by giving good laws to guide civil society, but it does not necessarily follow that government is best at determining how a child should be raised, how a community should grow, or how businesses can flourish.
If that sounds a little too hypothetical, let me put some practicals in play. The history of post-war Britain showed that government is not good at running businesses – our nationalised industries made us the laughing stock of the world. While the free market requires careful watching and regulation, the mechanism of the market responding to consumer demand is much better at producing flourishing businesses than a bureaucrat betting on which areas will be profitable, and attempting to plan growth rather than allowing it to happen organically. I don’t pretend that markets are perfect, but they usually manage on average and over time to reflect need and demand.
I’m conscious that there is a stereotype of Conservatism out there, which imagines a Tory government cutting all expenditure except for defence, and leaving everything else to ‘the market.’ The truth is that most Conservatives embrace that government has good work that it can do, and would accept that where an area of civil society is failing it is proper that the government should intervene for a time and a season. One of the great Conservative successes after World War 2 was the construction of social housing, where future Prime Minister Harold Macmillian built 300,000 homes per year to replenish Britain’s destroyed housing stock. Given the dire state of our housing market I have no difficulty in accepting the government must act to sort out our presenting housing crisis.
I also feel honour bound to address the accusation that to be Conservative is to be dispassionate, callous, and uncaring (certainly if one takes a sample of the views on my Facebook feed!). These primarily centre around three ‘caring’ areas: welfare, education, and health. The parties of the left insist that Conservative governments never spend enough on any of these areas, and are quick to label any spending restraint as ‘tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the poor.’ I also know that several Christians feel strongly that the Biblical mandate to care for the poor can only be expressed in left-of-centre policies. I want to address this point by looking at two areas: the effectiveness of government intervention, and the burden of government expense.
In the first instance, I unreservedly sign up to the view that society is required to care for the isolated, the vulnerable, and the unwell. What I dispute however that it is always best when government intervenes. I should emphasise that I don’t think it should ever be a choice of ‘government care, or no care’ – I would rather insist that both government and civil society have a role to play, and it is less good for the poor and disadvantaged when either is neglected. For issues like welfare in particular, I think there is a greater need for local community based welfare rather than national welfare. Government has two roles to play; on the one hand as the ‘safety net’ which shows mercy even to those who have made poor lifestyle choices; on the other it also has a role to encourage a good society rather than make the so-called ‘welfare trap’ a viable (if undesirable) means of life. There is an obvious tension there which I think can only be met through civil society rather than government.
The fascinating aspect of Biblical teaching on poverty is the extent to which it is relational; the early church held property in common and gave where there was need – but it is more instructive to say that everyone was prepared to use their abundance to help those who had none; their property was still ‘theirs’ but they recognised the duties that attended wealth alongside the advantages. Even in the Old Testament teaching of allowing those without land to glean the leftovers of the harvest (another Biblical phrase to enter common usage) there was a relational aspect – the land owners were meant to give the dispossessed the opportunity to collect their own food, and in the book of Ruth, we see an individual called Boaz go the extra mile, instructing his men to allow a disposssed widow to not only glean, but also offering her protection and access to drinking water – more than Biblical law demanded from him. This was not a government mandate (in actual fact, Boaz was unusual in allowing gleaning to occur at all!) – it was good for society not only that Ruth was able to glean, but also that Boaz chose to be generous. When welfare becomes a government duty, it too easily becomes a process of pure administration. As above, I recognise there are occasions were government must act, but I also recognise that government is not itself a solution, and there comes a point at which further spending has a detrimental impact.
One of the most significant ways in which excessive government can prove detrimental to the less privileged in society is through the burden of taxation. I have been extremely influenced by the history of the American War of Independence: ‘No taxation without representation’ was a bit of a mis-representation; the colonists were happy to pay taxation for the benefits of being defended by Britain and having access to their trade empire. What they objected to was the burden of taxation; that taxes were levied where they would cause damage and hurt to the colonies. Where one embraces (as Jeremy Corbyn has) a commitment to continuously expanding government spending and intervention, one in turn embraces a commitment to increasing the burden of taxation. This rather exposes the lie that one can simply pay for the government wish list by taxing the rich; the wealthy already bear most of the burden of taxation, and have the means to take their wealth elsewhere. Higher taxes may well deliver a short term return, but in the long run will either increase the burden of taxation for everyone, or leave the far worse burden of government debt. As a pragmatist I accept short-term tax raises may well prove necessary, but I also accept that there is a ceiling at which tax increases produce less money as people lose the incentive to worker harder, or decide to take their money elsewhere. Lower taxes can actually result, as under the Thatcher government, in more money for public services! If one truly embraces the idea that we must be compassionate to the least well off, we must also embrace the idea that we should not burden them with excessive taxation.
While I want to be mostly positive, one does also have to acknowledge that if one chooses to get involved in public life, it means getting involved with an existing political group to effect change – so comparing your options is inevitable. There is much that is initially attractive in the parties of the left, with their heavy linguistic focus on compassion for those in society who are in need. The difficulty however is that socialism does not work, and government was not meant to bear alone the burden of dealing with society’s myriad of problems. I am a Conservative,because I accept that government cannot solve everything, but it is worth governing well. I could easily have focused in this blog on a specific issue for this election; whether that is Brexit, security, taxation, social care, or health care. I’d be here all day doing so, so instead I wanted to outline the principle that guides me when I consider every issue; I want a government wise enough to know its limitations, compassionate enough to not place an unfair burden upon its subjects, and determined to govern well where it is required to do so. Given the fallen nature of humanity, I accept no government will ever achieve the above perfectly, and it is a fool’s errand to assume it can ever be achieved. Nevertheless, there is no reason not to aspire to it. The Conservative Party is about governing so that society is left free to flourish, and government only steps in where it is required to do so.
That’s why I am supporting Theresa May and the Conservatives on Thursday 8th June, and I strongly encourage you to do the same.