Is there a future for compassionate conservatism in Britain? Michael Gove outlined why there are reasons to feel optimistic at a speech at the Legatum Institute last night. The Tory Chief Whip said that many of the ideas promoted by The Good Right project are a core part of the Conservative Party’s mission — but there remains a need to ‘rebalance the debate about what’s best for Britain’. Here are five things you need to know about what Gove said.
1. The Tories need to remember people don’t like them
In 2002, Theresa May infamously said that the Conservative Party is viewed by many as the ‘nasty party’. While David Cameron has worked to reverse that notion, some of the policies enacted over the last five years reinforce the notion that the Tories are uncaring. To deal with this, Gove argued:
‘People need to know what’s in our hearts before they are prepared to consider our arguments in their heads’
Gove also said that the Conservative Party has been a continual ‘force for social progress over decades’ while the Labour Party’s current policies are not ‘directed squarely at reducing inequality and advancing social progress’. The SNP are ‘even less progressive than Labour’.
2. Fixing the economy is a moral mission
One of the consistent themes in Gove’s speech was that compassionate conservatism goes hand-in-hand with economic pragmatism. On the economy for example, he argued that the mantra of ‘long term economic plan’ has a compassionate side:
‘More than that, refusing to deal with a growing deficit means that the amount you have to pay every year just to service your debt grows and grows, dwarfing the amount you can spend elsewhere. What is progressive about spending more on debt interest than on schools or childcare, what is compassionate about handing over more of our money to financiers than we spend on mental health or child protection?’
3. Education reforms are vital to compassionate conservatism
He may have been ingloriously shuffled out of the Department for Education but Gove is still immensely proud of what he achieved. Although his successor Nicky Morgan did receive a name drop, Gove argued that much of what he did as Education Secretary is key to the Conservatives’ moral mission:
‘We replaced Labour’s worthless vocational qualifications with rigorous courses which required the display of real skills to secure a pass’
‘We ended the bias in funding at sixth-form which had favoured academic courses, so vocational courses were fairly funded and work experience incentivised.’
‘We reformed apprenticeships so they could not be – as they were under Labour – passed after a few months of whiteboard-gazing in an airless classroom’
‘We created new courses and qualifications in computer science, reformed design and technology so it reflected breakthroughs…’
‘We replaced the last government’s alphabet soup with a clear vocational route through school and college. Students now know they can study Tech Awards alongside GCSEs, Tech Certificates alongside AS Levels, and Tech Levels alongside A-levels.’
4. Gove remains loyal to Cameron, the compassionate conservative
Gove was one of the key members of the Notting Hill Set and an early backer of Cameron’s 2005 leadership bid. Although some Tories feel the PM has fallen short on his initial promise, Gove argued that Cameron still defines what it is to be a modern, compassionate Conservative:
‘When David Cameron ran for the leadership of my party he did so, and I supported him, because he defined himself as a modern, compassionate Conservative. Throughout the last five years David Cameron has governed, and I have been privileged to support him, as a modern, compassionate Conservative.’
And given that the election is just weeks away, Gove was understandably keen to explain why The Good Right’s principles reinforce the need for a Tory government:
‘I fear that if David Cameron is not Prime Minister the progress we have made in the last five years will be lost.’
5. Tories need to remember that Iain Duncan Smith isn’t the saviour
IDS’ efforts to reform welfare are admirable in many ways. Many voters believe that the Welfare State needs rebuilding and both Labour and the Conservatives agree that Universal Credit is the most immediate and workable solution. But some might argue that the Department for Work and Pensions has failed to deliver what was promised in 2010. Combined with the cuts to benefits spending and policies like the ‘bedroom tax’, IDS has quickly become a bogeyman for progressives. But Gove said:
‘The number of new jobs created in the course of the last five years has been truly astonishing – a tribute to the enterprise of British industry, the ambition of the British people and the vision of Iain Duncan Smith.
‘That is what Iain Duncan Smith has done – and it has been a moral mission throughout.
‘Iain knows himself what it is like to be unemployed. He knows what cognitive scientists and psychologists have been proving with greater and greater power over the last few years – a life of learned dependency – a life on welfare – is the enemy of happiness and hope – a life of earned success – work and reward – is the surest route to happiness and fulfilment.’
All these sentiments may be true but arguing that IDS is right on a moral stance alone won’t convince those who see him as an incompetent minister who has failed to reform welfare enough. The jobs miracle may be alive and well but there is more work needed to convince voters that, at least on welfare, Tories have a heart as well as a head.