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Conservatives must fight for the moral high ground

By Tim Montgomerie

Books The most popular institutions in the world have a moral purpose as a central part of their identity.

The NHS may deliver relatively poor healthcare by international standards but Britons still, understandably love it because of its commitment to treat every patient equally, regardless of ability to pay.

The United Nations may have failed to stop genocide in Rwanda and Darfur but it is still revered because of the soaring moral ambitions of its founding charter.

The European Court of Human Rights may no longer be about fundamental rights (see today's PX report) but politicians are frightened to leave an institution with such a moralistic title.

Many NGOs may be undemocratic, unaccountable and wasteful but they are more trusted than other institrutions because they proclaim their good intentions in everything they do.

The Labour Party may have left the British economy in terrible debt but it’s already riding high in the polls again. It’s liked more than the Conservative Party (according to Ipsos MORI) because it’s the party that presents itself as the champion of the poor and the unemployed.

Eventually, poor performance catches up with institutions (as it did with Labour, last May) but clearly communicated moral purpose gives institutions the benefit of the doubt. A clear moral purpose is one of the easiest ways to communicate to voters, consumers and citizens. And a clear moral vision is something the Conservative Party neglects at its peril.

As George Osborne and David Cameron continue to defend their necessary decision to cut the excess from Britain's bloated state they should think on this. If they only defend the cuts with the language of accountants – warning that international markets demand austerity – they’ll be fighting with one arm tied behind their backs. It's true that international markets demand action but too much threatening and frightening people doesn't do too much for the Conservative Party's long-term brand.

The deficit reduction plan should largely be explained in moral terms. It’s a moral outrage that we should leave the next generation to pay off our debts. The need to 'live within our means' is a term that cannot be used enough by Conservative spokesmen.

Across the whole of government the same clarity of moral purpose needs to be used. In welfare reform, for example, we aren't changing the system because we are penny-pinchers but because money that could be helping the very oldest, very sickest and most vulnerable people is being soaked up by people who aren’t working but can and should. Helping people to stand on their own two feet - and fulfil their potential - is a great moral enterprise.

Is it any accident that Iain Duncan Smith became one of the country’s most popular Conservative politicians by pursuing his genuine commitment to social justice? The long-term health of the Conservative Party depends upon articulating a moral mission. Not as a bolt-on extra but as a central purpose. Conservative values are about personal responsibility; rewarding effort; standing by people who save for the future; honouring veterans and those who put something back into the community, rather than always taking from it; protecting the most disadvantaged.

Throughout this week I'll be looking at this subject further. Tomorrow I'll propose some central moral truths of conservatism; on Wednesday I'll look at whether the Big Society can be rescued as a moral project; and then towards the end of the week, I'll blog on the ethics of Conservative domestic and international policy.


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