“I don’t do social justice”, he growled, before storming off muttering more discontent. Another delegate uttered exactly the same sentence minutes later. “People are poor because they choose to be poor” said someone else. And so it continued. My first day at the 2007 Conservative party conference, working for the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), didn’t start well.
Since then I have encountered the Conservative Party's strange unease about social justice. Many reject it, some dabble in it and a few live by it. But nobody seems to mention it.
This silent surrender means social justice tends to be an uncontested concept for the Left. Often wary, many Conservatives consider it a cloak for mass wealth redistribution, uncontrolled public spending or intrusive statism. Others, like Friedrich Hayek, famously dismissed social justice as ‘meaningless’ and ‘impossible’.
How absurd. Some of the country’s finest reformers, from William Wilberforce to the Earl of Shaftesbury (and as Paul Goodman noted earlier this month, lesser-known figures like Henry Willink) demonstrated a distinguished Conservative tradition for radical social transformation and concern for the vulnerable. Add to that the outstanding service of numerous party members in their local communities – helping the disadvantaged and supporting those less fortunate – and a mysterious Jekyll and Hyde identity crisis takes shape.