What Conservatives can learn from Haidt
Duncan O’Leary has already written up last night’s debate on Jonathan Haidt’s lessons for liberals. It was, as he suggests, a fascinating and thought provoking event. Although the purpose of the discussion was to discern ‘what liberals can learn from conservatives’ it also, I believe, contained some nuggets of wisdom for conservatives wondering how to convince the public that we are moral folk with a moral story to tell.
Because one of the few aspects of Haidt’s thesis that does not travel so well across the Atlantic is the idea that the public believe conservatives to be morally better endowed than their Left-liberal opponents. That simply is not the case in the UK. The continued toxicity of the Tory brand (so vividly brought to life in the repeated election coverage of the 1992 election in which Major beat the pollsters precisely because voters were too embarrassed to admit to voting Tory) is in part an issue of perception with regard to our own moral compasses. We struggle to convince the public that our intentions – on everything from public services to tax – are ‘good’; that we are virtuous folk with moral and unselfish motivations. The perception of conservatives as both selfish and conspiratorial is explored, again with reference to Haidt’s book, by the indomitable Toby Young on the Spectator blog today. I think he is more right than he knows – it’s not just teaching unions who regard us as ill-intentioned, it’s a considerable proportion of the population.
Perhaps part of the reason for this is that while we may well be stronger on four of Haidt’s six moral senses than the Labour Party we have not articulated our strength as morality. Too often when describing the need for tradition, for institutional authority, for reciprocity and for religion we shy away at the last minute, choosing to use arguments of outcome to justify ourselves rather than to acknowledge the essential moral truth of what we believe. There are exceptions of course – Cameron is actually rather good when allowed to let rip on moral collapse and Iain Duncan Smith rightly uses the language of sin to describe welfare dependency. But too often we appear uncertain of our moral purpose, fall back into safer, technocratic explanation, and fail to hit the point home. This makes us look insincere (as Andrew Lillico suggests) and wastes our natural, more morally resonant, advantage.
But the second reason for the moral mistrust in the Conservative Party remains our lack of answers about the two, core, liberal moral senses. On care and on fairness we remain out of touch with Britain. The cut in the top-rate of tax, at a time when British voters are more anxious about inequality and inequity than at any point in the last thirty years, will not have helped us to overcome the sense that we lack an understanding of the difference that ever-bigger gaps are making to people’s sense of themselves as a nation and a community. So too, the proposed abolition of special trading regulations to protect supermarket workers from the drudgery of a seven day working week - and to ensure families have a time, a space, in which they can be at leisure together - demonstrates a lack of ear for the morality of care. I don’t want the Conservative Party to hug social democracy close – but I do want the party to understand that the things we hold dear, from social cohesion to tradition, are affected by gulfs in ownership and earnings.