Tim Montgomerie has posted at Standpoint that Conservatives need to retake the moral high ground and reconnect with values voters. It’s also picked up at Platform 10, and no doubt elsewhere.
I have two responses to this. Firstly, we need to define what our values are. (Personally, it doesn’t help that the article considers US Democrats to be similar to Labour. I’d be a Democrat in the USA, as would many other progressive Conservatives.) Secondly, values and morals are not the same thing.
The question of what our Conservative values are is difficult partly because Conservatives tend to think of themselves as pragmatic, following the evidence of “what works” rather than ideological instinct. Because “what works” differs between individuals, Conservatives strongly support individual choice. To put it simply, for many in the Conservative Party, the starting point is freedom.
There is a conflict between this individualist liberal approach and socially conservative views. In my experience, a large number of Conservatives favour the former. However, the public perception of Conservatives is, well, a little too conservative. Conservatives are seen as wishing to conserve a perfect 1950’s model of society complete with all its inequalities, rather than cautious pragmatists looking to implement only beneficial change. As Conservatives we need to challenge this image.
However, a bigger issue than the definition of Conservative values is the frequent conflating of values and morals. Values are one thing, morals quite another.
A value expresses a goal worth pursuing. A value can reflect changing circumstances, can incorporate differences of opinion. A value is flexible rather than prescriptive. A value can fit to encompass the choices individuals make. I support the family as a basic community unit, but that doesn’t mean I think all families should be the same, or even that the members need to be related by blood or legally-recognised partnerships. I simply mean that people seem to seek close committed relationships, and “family” is a good term to describe the units they form. Committed relationships and family ties appear to be good to individuals and good for society as a whole.
A moral indicates something which “ought” to be done, something which is “right” or even “good”. At their heart, morals rely on being pinned to absolutes, whether humanist, scientific or religious. Morality assumes a norm to be conformed to, a perfect answer to strive towards. Morality is dogmatic, it separates and alienates. I also consider it to be fundamentally philosophically unsound, relying on an absolute Platonic ideal.
Tim Montgomerie is right to say that the Conservative Party needs to emphasis values. But talking about morals will undermine Compassionate Conservatism. It will take us back towards morals based on dogma instead of values based on individual free choice.