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24 April 2013

Heroes and heroines of compassionate conservatism

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Top row from left to right: Phillip Blond, David Willetts, Iain Macleod, William Wilberforce, Emmeline Pankhurst, Harold Macmillan, GK Chesterton.

Bottom row from left to right: Jane Austen, Mancherjee Bhownagree, Benjamin Disraeli, Iain Duncan Smith, Hannah More.

This is not a detailed account and it certainly isn’t comprehensive. Rather with the briefest of thumbnail sketches, the aim is to trace the story of compassionate conservatism in Britain as told through the life and work of 25 compassionate conservatives.

Note that these are not all big-C Conservatives. Indeed, we begin in the 18th century, before the birth of the modern Conservative Party, with the father of free market economics:

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

If you’re looking for a defence of laissez faire economic liberalism you won’t find it in the works of Adam Smith. His Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments are far more complicated than that – each of them an exploration of both the power and the pitfalls of the market. What you will find however is an early validation of the concept of relative poverty, an argument for high wages (“the liberal reward of labour”) and a defence of the common good: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) 

The greatest conservative philosopher of them all was not a Tory, but a Whig – a reminder that what we now think of conservatism is drawn from many sources. At the dawning of an age of revolutions, Burke empathised with the revolutionary desire for a better world, but saw all too clearly that actual result would be hell on Earth. In place of grand plans and mighty governments, he placed his hope in human-scale institutions – families, communities and the ‘little platoons’ of civil society.

Jane Austen* (1775-1817)

As well economics and philosophy, we must must not forget the importance of culture in nourishing the roots conservatism. Wordsworth and Coleridge, for instance, remind us that there is poetry in the conservative soul, but it is their contemporary, Jane Austen, who was the greatest literary exponent of compassionate conservative values. Her novels, though outwardly apolitical, stand as a subtle and sophisticated defence of both freedom and order, bound together through tradition and responsibility. 

Hannah More* (1745-1833)

Hannah More’s remarkable life spans the literary world of the late 18th century and the reforming religious fervour of the early 19th. A poet and playwright, she turned her pen against both the slave trade and the revolutionary ideas of Thomas Paine. She was also a tireless philanthropist, overcoming local opposition to set up a string of village schools in her native West Country.

William Wilberforce* (1759-1833)

Hannah More was a close associate of the most celebrated of all social reformers, William Wilberforce. An Member of Parliament, a friend of William Pitt and a convert to evangelical Christianity, he led the long, but ultimately successful, struggle against the slave trade. Wilberforce also found the time to campaign for public morals, prison reform and better working conditions for chimney sweeps. And on top of all of that, he was a founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal, which, of course, later became the RSPCA.

Robert Peel (1778-1850) 

As can be deduced from the careers of Edmund Burke and William Wilberforce, the party system of their era was not a clear as it is today. No one would do more to change this than Robert Peel, who founded the modern Conservative Party in the 1830s. As Prime Minister he continued his father’s reforming work as an MP by passing the Factory Act of 1844, which restricted working hours for women and children. Furthermore, in seeking to reduce food prices for the working class (and in response to famine in Ireland) he sacrificed his Premiership to repeal to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846. Though the Liberals would eventually claim him as their founding father, for the remainder of his life Peel stood by his conservative principles, rejecting the advances of the Whigs and Radicals.

Benjamin Disraeli* (1804-1881) 

An unlikely and contradictory figure in all things, Disraeli’s contribution to compassionate conservatism is no exception. Occupying the little-visited borderlands between Radicalism and High Toryism, he was instrumental in bringing down Peel over the Corn Laws, but as a minister and Prime Minister was a great champion of the working man, not least by giving him the vote. If all that were not enough, he pioneered the political novel – pricking the Victorian conscience with searing descriptions of poverty and inventing ‘one nation’ Conservatism in the process. 

Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-1885)

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, stands with Wilberforce as a giant of social reform and philanthropy. A Tory MP, but never a minister, he devoted his career to improving the lot of the poor and destitute – securing a string of key reforms over decades of Parliamentary service. The Shaftesbury Memorial in Piccadilly Circus is commonly, but inaccurately, known as ‘Eros’. Thus, instead of serving its original purpose, it stands as a symbol of just how much we’ve forgotten about the not so distant past – and those who did so much to change it for the better.

GK Chesterton* (1874-1936)

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was not a Conservative. He made that clear in following statement: “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent those mistakes from being corrected.” With typical his brilliance, Chesterton thus points to the failure of compassionate conservatism to make it into the modern era as a vital political force. Chesterton, along with other late Victorian figures, like Octavia Hill and John Ruskin, stands outside of the mainstream conservative tradition – representative of the ‘conservatism of the heart’ that the Conservative Party somehow left behind.

Randolph Churchill (1849-1895)

Randolph Churchill is another symbol of the faltering spirit of conservatism in the late 19th century. Frustrated by his party’s inability to articulate a popular, progressive Toryism to challenge the Liberals, he was as much of a gadfly to the Conservative front bench as he was to his official opponents. Though his brilliance propelled him to ministerial office, his sudden resignation (never fully explained) and early death meant that his vision of ‘Tory Democracy’ was left unfulfilled.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914)

Some may wonder how the Conservative Party managed to survive into the twentieth century, so weak was its response to the modern era. In part it was because the Liberal Party cracked-up first, great chunks of it (like Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists) splitting away  and falling into a Tory orbit. The irony is that Chamberlain’s relevance to compassionate conservatism – his remarkable achievements as mayor of Birmingham – had little impact at the time. In the 20th  century, Conservative would try to hold back and then roll back the frontiers of the state, but they did not decentralise it. Now, in the 21st century, the Conservatives have at last become the party of radical localism, for which Chamberlain serves as an inspiration.

Mancherjee Bhownagree* (1851-1933) and Emmeline Pankhurst* (1858-1928)

Did you know that, in 1895, an Asian Conservative candidate was a elected as the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green North East (and re-elected in 1900)? Mancherjee Bhownagree, a leader of the Zoroastrian Parsi community, a reforming lawyer and a philanthropist, only settled in Britain in 1891. In Parliament, he was a defender of British rule in India, but a tireless advocate of the rights of Indians throughout the British Empire.

The suffragette leader, Emmeline Pankhurst represents another forgotten chapter in the Conservative story. Politically, she began well to the left of the ideological spectrum. She tried to join the Independent Labour Party, but, being a woman, was refused membership – a reminder of how leftwing sexism (and racism) has been edited out of history. A great patriot, she paused the suffragette campaign during the First World War, and, in 1926, joined the Conservative Party – motivated, in particular, by her resolute anti-Communism. 

Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) and Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940)

Surveying his fellow MPs in 1918, Stanley Baldwin pronounced them “a lot of hard-faced men who  look as if they had done very well out of the war.” As Financial Secretary to the Treasury, he called upon the rich to make voluntary donations to the repayment of the nation’s war debt – and chipped in with a fifth of his personal fortune. In 1922, he was instrumental in saving the Conservative Party from the destructive embrace of David Lloyd George and would go on to become the dominant political figure of the interwar years.

Neville Chamberlain, son of Joseph (see above), was another one nation Conservative, serving in senior positions with and under Baldwin, succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1937. In his ministerial offices he pushed through many social reforms – including the abolition of the poor law.

Baldwin and Chamberlain held the country together in a time of economic crisis, against the odds – and, in an era when other democracies fell to the advance of extremism, they maintained the relevance of a not so hard-faced conservatism. Of course, they also failed – in preparing the country for the gathering storm and in preventing the triumph of socialism after the Second World War.

Henry Willink (1894-1973)

To this day, the Labour Party assiduously perpetuates the biggest myth in British politics – which is that they created the National Health Service, as if out of nothing, in 1948. In fact, it was drawn together from a variety of pre-existing voluntary, private and local government institutions. As for the principle of universal healthcare, available to all free at the point of need, that was proposed by Henry Willink, the Conservative health minister during the Second World War. The difference between his proposals and those later enacted by Labour, was that his health service would have been “publicly organised” rather than “publicly provided”. Thus while still free and universal it would have been less monolithic and more responsive than the NHS that Labour wrought.

Rab Butler (1902-1982) and Harold Macmillan* (1894-1986)

The post-war triumph of socialism was by no means complete. Two men, in particular, would ensure that the Conservatives would continue as the natural party of government. Rab Butler, as author of the 1944 Education Act, was another Conservative wartime social reformer; and, Butler’s great rival, Harold Macmillan, re-housed the nation after the destruction of the war years. As Prime Minister, Macmillan  made full employment his goal and mass prosperity his message. And yet Butler and Macmillan, like Baldwin and Chamberlain before them, where practitioners of a pragmatic response to socialism and did not develop a dynamic alternative to it.

Iain Macleod* (1913-1970)

And so to the 1960s – an era of wasted talent and lost opportunities for the Conservative Party.  Illness and early death robbed one nation Conservatism of Iain Macleod, a brilliant thinker and orator who could have led his party to a very different future. Then again, one could argue that, given the growing madness of the militant left, only Thatcherism – or something like it – could have prevailed in the great ideological showdown that was to follow in the 1970s and 80s. In any case, with Macleod gone, one nation Conservatism degenerated into a complacent acceptance of the corporatist status quo and an increasing fixation with Europe as a substitute ideology.

Lynda Chalker (1942-)

Lynda Chalker was a minister for the entire eighteen year period of the Thatcher and Major governments. Most notably, she served as Minister of State for Overseas Development from 1989-1997. She was instrumental in establishing Britain’s international development programme as one of the most effective and competently-run in world. There are those who think that all government aid is good and others who think it is all bad. The truth is that both can the case. More than anyone, Chalker is responsible for maximising the good and minimising the bad.

David Willetts* (1956-)

In 1997, the Conservative Party suffered a truly devastating electoral defeat – on some measures the worst of any British governing party in the democratic era. Out of this shattering experience, came a desire to reconnect the party to its one nation roots. Indeed, the 21st century has seen the rebirth of compassionate conservatism as a living political tradition. Many names have been associated with this broad-based movement (see below), but credit is due to David Willetts as the first to reclaim this intellectual inheritance and move the party on from its one-dimensional focus on market economics. In his Civic Conservatism – published in 1994 – he made the case that there is more to public life than the state and the market, and that the true purpose of conservatism is to strengthen civil society. 

Tim Montgomerie (1970-)

If David Willetts provided the intellectual basis for the one nation revival, then it is Tim Montgomerie who provided its animating force. Working tirelessly behind the scenes, he was the founder of three institutions – the Conservative Christian Fellowship, Renewing One Nation (forerunner of the Centre for Social Justice) and this website – that have developed and communicated the ideas of modern day compassionate conservatism. Crucially this was done from the right of the Conservative Party – never repudiating the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, but placing it within a broader, social context.

Iain Duncan Smith* (1954-)

Iain Duncan Smith was perhaps the least likely of the new compassionate conservatives. And yet, his 2002 visit to the deprived Easterhouse estate in Glasgow provided compassionate conservatism with its most important moment. Before Easterhouse, it had been decades since a Conservative Party leader had addressed the reality of poverty in our country. The entire issue had been surrendered to left. After Easterhouse, Conservatives would again have something to say about social justice. As for IDS, would be deposed as party leader, but that was just the beginning of his mission. Today, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, he is, in the most challenging of economic circumstances, leading the long-overdue struggle to reform the welfare state.             

Michael Gove (1967-)

Compassionate conservatism was reborn on the right of Conservative Party, but it was taken up with great enthusiasm by David Cameron and his fellow liberal conservatives on the left. In fact, it was flashily rebranded as the ‘Big Society’ and put at the heart of the 2010 election manifesto. Then, in a fit of absence of mind, it was all but abandoned in government. Fortunately, one liberal conservative – Michael Gove – has kept the faith, translating rhetoric into action. Educational reform, welfare reform and the localisation of political power represents the best of this government and we must hope that this legacy will not be snuffed by what is to come.

Philip Blond* (1966-)

Whatever their other differences, compassionate conservatives like David Willetts, Tim Montgomerie, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove all accept the Margaret Thatcher’s economic settlement. Phillip Blond, however, does not. The self-styled ‘Red Tory’ doesn’t just want to harness the power of the little platoons to transform the state, he wants to transform the market too. While not anti-capitalist, he would say that Adam Smith’s warnings have been ignored and that capitalism has been corrupted by entrenched vested interests. Time will tell, but the future of the Conservative Party – indeed its very survival – may depend on taking on those interests.


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