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Jesse Norman MP

Jesse Norman MP: It's time for us all to talk and listen to each other a little bit more

JessenormanJesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. His new biography of Edmund Burke was published recentlyFollow Jesse on Twitter

Last Saturday, I was honoured to be the after-dinner speaker at the Conservative Renewal Conference in Windsor.  What follows is based in part on what I said then, minus quite a few jokes.

"Ladies and Gentlemen:

It’s a great joy to speak at a conference devoted to ideas, and especially to conservative ideas.  Ideas, not people, are what ultimately rule us.  They are always in charge, for good or ill, whether we know it or not - this is what Keynes is hinting at in his famous line about today’s politicians being the slaves of some defunct economist.  And ideas have real consequences.  So it’s wise for us to reflect on them, and their limitations.

For some reason in recent months I seem to have acquired the reputation of being the Che Guevara of the modern Conservative Party.  This is absurd, of course; I am the very opposite of a revolutionary.  But it does mean that the press have started to scrutinise my public remarks with all the fervent enthusiasm of a group of Miley Cyrus fans at a twerking convention.  Whatever “twerking” is.

Let us start by surveying the political battlefield together.  On one side, we see our ministerial battalions carrying all before them:  in the Treasury, in Education, in Work and Pensions, in Local Government, and a host of other places.  On the other side, Labour is in retreat, and driven hither and yon by their union paymasters.  Twisting and jerking to the beat of Len McCluskey and his colleagues.

Ladies and Gentlemen, you may say Labour isn’t twerking.  But I put it to you that Labour is in fact twerking…twerking hard.  And it’s not a pretty sight.

Meanwhile Tony Abbott has won a thumping victory in Australia, and Angela Merkel looks set to win in Germany.  In other words, all around the world conservative ideas are on the march.
And I would ask you all to notice one remarkable fact:  that our own Conservative-led government has launched one of the most vigorous and decisive programmes of political reform in our history…as part of a coalition… in the teeth of the worst recession in recorded history… and with, not merely the consent, but the increasingly evident support, of the British people.  That is a quite extraordinary achievement.

But there is a fascinating further possibility:  that we are also seeing a much deeper change in the nature of politics.  There was a first great reckoning after 1979, when Mrs Thatcher came to power determined to reassert democratic control over the political process, to conquer inflation, and to get Britain’s economy moving once again.

Now we have a second great reckoning.  The public know, the public understand, that in the immortal words of Liam Byrne, “There is no money left.”  In other words, the possibility of big increases in state spending no longer hangs over British politics.  Gone, for a while at least, is the pushmi-pullyu by which governments were able to cop out of economic policy by pumping up demand, only to have to retrench ingloriously thereafter.  Instead we have, for the first time in six decades, a long-term hard budget constraint.  No more state bail-outs.

I would argue that this fundamentally alters the basic assumptions of politics itself.  It means attention must fall onto society as such, and its institutions.  We are in a Burkean moment, and here we have a great Burkean lesson, that man is a social animal, that from our actions arise habits, shared practices, norms and institutions:  those stores of collective wisdom, that give our lives their point and purpose; whether they be the church, the family, the pub, the football team.  They put one in mind of that great definition of a conservative:  someone who believes that institutions are wiser than people.  Their counterpart is modesty in political action: reform, not revolution.

There remain the three great tasks of reform:  continuing to improve our public services; enabling Britain's vast array of independent institutions to cope with rapid social change, without undue dependence on the taxpayer; and rekindling the British industrial spirit, the spirit of wealth creation and entrepreneurial energy, not the spirit of a narrow and rent-seeking crony capitalism.
But our great institutions also include Parliament, and the Conservative party.  And at a conference devoted to conservative ideas let me turn briefly to another great conservative thinker, Michael Oakeshott.

For Oakeshott, a fundamental idea is that of conversation.  For him our culture and society are shaped by a vast, enveloping and evolving conversation, through which different traditions play into and cross-fertilise one other, each with its own voice, be that of science, of business, of the arts, of religion, of the law.

Why does this matter?  For three reasons:

  • First, because all intelligence is conversational at root, lying as it does in the exchange of ideas.  Conversation is not coercive, or even purposive; it is a spontaneous and evolving dance of intellect and emotion.
  • Secondly, because conversation demands a context of mutual respect, of civility between the participants, of manners.  In that context it is impossible not to recall Burke’s great words in the Reflections:  “It was this chivalry which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality and handed it down through all the gradations of social life.  It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power, it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a domination, vanquisher of laws, to be subdued by manners.”  “The soft collar of social esteem…” what a line; what a thought.
  • And thirdly, because Parliament is the great parley-house, supported by political parties, in which our national conversation takes place.  It is in Parliament, as well as within our own party, that this conversation, this active collective intelligence, is to be played out.  It is in Parliament, and within our party, that these norms of modesty and mutual respect, of manners and civility, must find their place if that conversation is to succeed.

So I would end with a request to you, and to all our Conservative friends and colleagues:  indeed a plea, as the late Elvis Presley so nearly said, for “a little more conversation”.  With that conversation so invigorated and flourishing will come a great flood of new intelligence, new energy and new ideas. Without that conversation, we will stagnate.  With it, there is nothing we cannot accomplish together.

Thank you, and good evening."


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