‘Be afraid, be very afraid.’ That was how the Labour party advertised against the Conservative party at the 2001 election. Conservatives certainly have a reputation for being the ‘nasty party.’ And while Christianity isn’t a political manifesto, it does give us certain priorities (like the poor, the victim, the widow) and principles (ultimate value of human life, justice). Which sounds a long way from the clichés of Conservatives as heartless and self-interested, marginalising minorities and washing their hands of the poor. How can any Christian actually be a Conservative?!
Stereotypes tell us that Conservatives are heartless and Labour are naïve. Both are wrong, and I hope to briefly show a more accurate picture of what Conservatives are really about, and why I think their vision for society best meets these principles and priorities.
A Better Way to Progress
British Conservatism was born of the blood-soaked streets of late 18th century Paris. English politician, Edmund Burke argued that the French Revolution had been a disaster for French people: in their utopian fervour to achieve genuinely good things, they had torn society apart. Many of the aims of the French Revolution were good and Burke (an outspoken supporter of the American Revolution) was no mere reactionary. But he was disturbed that certain elites were imposing their own view of how society should change. It created a ‘with us or against us’ mentality that marginalised people – laying the ground for persecution (as The Terrors later confirmed). Burke saw another way.
Many political philosophies have believed in a ‘progressive’ view of history: that things are inevitably getting better and better. Conservatism is far more cautious. As Roger Scruton puts it, the danger with this ‘unscrupulous optimism’ is that it is inevitably disappointed, and then scapegoating leads to marginalisation and persecution. Christianity tempers this ‘unscrupulous optimism’ by reminding us that the problem is sin, and so the solution is not politics. We can make lots of progress through politics, but the basic problem – the sinfulness of the human heart – will still characterise society.
Burke argued instead for a ‘gradual progress’ which put individuals’ rights first and sought solutions together. Benjamin Disraeli would later name this ‘One Nation’ politics: society moving forward united, not certain elites leading and demanding everyone follow. Burke also argued a society must conserve the good things left to us: a nation ‘is a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.’
Communities: Diverse, Free and Compassionate
‘Christianity is a religion of community, with love of God and neighbour at its heart…We are commanded to love our neighbour, and that responsibility cannot be surrendered to the state…Conservatives believe in strengthening the relationships within society rather than increasing the power of the state.’
Iain Duncan Smith’s words neatly summarise the direction in which Conservatives seek to serve communities. Government cannot construct community, any more than it can construct happiness. It takes the free association of people. All Government can do is help support the surroundings to enable it to flourish, and Conservatism has traditionally championed the structures that God gave us to build society, such as family, marriage and local groups like churches.
Conservatism has always been a vision for society as a whole, not merely politics. Conservatism believes in a society which is itself made up of the means of its own improvement. Government should encourage personal responsibility, allowing society (individuals and churches/charities/etc) to discover how to love its neighbour better. There are moments when state-wide organisation is helpful, but the norm should surely be local communities actively serving those around them, in love – rather than paying more tax so we can get the Government to do that for us?
Wealth Creation: the Quest for Servant-Hearted Stewardship
The first role God gives humanity in Genesis 2 is to ‘work’ and ‘keep’ creation. In other words, to actively develop the raw materials of creation; and to preserve creation. From arable farming to the internal combustion engine, humanity has flourished when positive responses to this mandate have brought greater comfort, safety, and opportunity for all people. By turning branches into a shelter, a stone into a knife, a river’s flow into power, and sand into glass, we are creating more valuable things: we are creating wealth. And this is then the context in which we can be more helpfully generous in loving others. Creating wealth is not a sin – it creates an opportunity to love and serve our neighbour. Wealth funds the welfare state, it fuels the charitable sector, it creates the things society needs to function better. In international development, it has been accepted for many years that hand-outs do not work. Conservatism seeks to apply this wisdom on a national level. As Margaret Thatcher pointed out, we seek to lift people out of poverty, not to make the rich poorer.
Ultimately, the Conservative vision for society is only partly about politics. It’s real emphasis is on serving each other, living in community with those around us, never putting politics ahead of people, and giving you – and the Church – the opportunity to love and serve those around you, rather than leaving it to a bunch of posh boys who don’t know the price of milk.
The CARE Leadership Programme provides a year long educational placement for graduates to gain experience through working placements in politics or third sector organisations alongside a programme of theological and practical training each Friday. Applications for the 2014-15 programme are now open – until 11 November. Johnny was placed with an MP as part of the programme in 2012-13.