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Can humanists be conservative? A view from the right...ish side of politics

By Aaron, our Design and Layout Editor

With the UK’s General Election approaching in 2024 or early 2025, Dorset Humanists recently hosted a series of presentations, firstly from the left side of the political spectrum and then from the right. This is an edited transcript of Aarons talk from the right...ish side of the divide.

Conservatives and humanism 

I've had considerable difficulty in preparing this talk, mainly because the Conservatives are not a team I would currently defend, promote or stand up for, let alone take a bullet for in the way of flack and abuse. But right of centre politics is more than just one team, and it's more than one ideology. If a pigeon hole is mandatory, then right of centre is where I fit, although my politics are broad spectrum. In all likelihood, I may be left with no one to vote for when the election comes.


I'm also not keen on the left's combative ideology. Fight, fight, fight. It's not about fighting. If your policies are good enough, they'll win people over. If not, then maybe they need revision. Labour Party conference speeches, which I accept are delivered to a target audience, address the working class and only them. The underdog, the downtrodden. The overriding message is: “We will take from the wealthy and raise up the poor”. 


Now I'm not a victim. I'm not downtrodden. I do like my country and I'm proud of it. But I want to support a party that views the country as a whole, not one that takes a one-sided approach. The rich, the wealthy, the educated – they're not in the left's plan, other than to take money from. This doesn't sit comfortably with me. 


I'm also not a person who would protest, cause a public nuisance or commit vandalism. I do feel that people should aspire to be more than they are, and have every opportunity to reach their full potential. I also believe in borders, and that alone seems to make me some sort of right-wing fascist in the eyes of some on the left.


In my view, parliamentary candidates must:

  • Have a track record of proven competency

  • Keep their constituents informed of their actions

  • Communicate via a blog, newsletter, or social media monthly

  • List the personal policies which they alone will champion

My current Member of Parliament does none of this. But MPs are employed by us, they work for us, and so they should be accountable to us. I think that, at the very least, an account of what they have done for us, either on a weekly blog or monthly website, should be in the public realm.


But can humanists be conservatives? Yes, of course they can. Conservatism, in the UK at least, takes many forms. Several versions, such as “One Nation Conservatives” and “Compassionate Conservatism”, exemplified by Theresa May and then Boris Johnson, have reached very much into humanist areas. Did I just see some eyes roll then? 

No matter what you personally think of them now, when they stood for election they delivered in speeches and in their manifesto a “One Nation” view that encapsulated humanist values at its heart:  

  • Uniting the country as one voice 

  • Levelling the playing field so no one is left behind

  • Building our economy so we all benefit

  • Promoting Britain on the world stage

  • Enhancing 40 hospitals with upgrades

Wikipedia says this about “One Nation Conservatives:

“Adherents believe in social cohesion and support social institutions that maintain harmony between different interest groups, classes, and – more recently – different races or religions.”


No matter how events turned out, the vision as outlined by Johnson and May was a positive and optimistic one. One that aimed to build better and unite a country. Had certain world events not taken place, I have every confidence we would have gained a lot from their vision.

So when I speak of Conservatives in this article, I'll be directly referencing compassionate and One Nation elements. These are where I sit, where I feel most humanists would sit, and where, it seems, the voter base sits.  

This quadrant diagram places “Authoritarian” at the top, “Libertarian” at the bottom and Left and Right sides respectively. If we zoom into the blue quadrant you can see that “Compassionate Conservatism” is placed in the middle.

What's equally important on these charts for humanists is the degree of overlap. Conservatives are not a “one-size fits all” grouping. The chart below left shows this overlap. Brexit Party voters overlap with Conservative Party voters, whereas during the 2019 and 2022 elections, the Conservative Party itself moved to the right of voters. The image below right shows how voters, party members and MPs occupy different spaces whilst overlapping with others.

There are lots of opinions about conservatism, which I'll come to, but its principal aim is to build everyone up, allow people to flourish, to contribute, to be as good as they can be. If a person has a good education, maintains good health, and has career opportunities then they can feel valued, can add to the nation and contribute to the whole. If a country is unified, working together for a common aim then everyone benefits. The idea that Conservatives are only for the rich or in it for themselves doesn't make any sense. Why would the rich want to neglect half the country and then have to carry them? Conservatives want everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction. The boat reaches the destination faster, a stronger economy grows, and then everyone benefits from greater public spending on housing, infrastructure, services and so on. 

Conservatives are attacked for class and privilege, yet from a national perspective this vision makes sense. To build a nation of equally-equipped people leaves no room for added excellence. By chance, a person may rise to the top of the tree by their own individual abilities, but Conservatives want every opportunity available to those who want or can afford it. Education available for all is on offer, but as with all things in life, if you want to build upon what is available then you can pay extra and get more. A better-educated person has every chance of delivering back to the country in the field of science, technology, innovation. Building the economy, delivering more tax, and everyone benefits. Some families can easily pay for this. Some may forgo holidays or luxuries, in order to buy a better education for their children. These are choices I feel belong to us. Not necessarily a one-size-fits-all scenario. Yet some only look at how choice benefits the individual, rather than the whole country. Is buying a better education for your child wrong? How many of us don't just buy the basic food in Tesco? We willingly pay extra for better baked beans, branded bread, or a nicer steak. We all pay more when offered choice all the time. So why would you not buy a better education if you could afford to? How many of you have a private healthcare plan, have paid for a first class ticket on a train, or bought a better car?

Conservatism is about choice. Humanism is about free will and choice. Logical thought and reason are in there too. Equality and fairness play a part of course, and grants, scholarships and opportunities are open to those showing promise who are not from wealthy families. It makes sense to help and assist those showing an aptitude for learning. We could do more of this.

Conservatives are deemed to be capitalists, promoting a free market society. Is this wrong? Free markets build choice, choice builds competition, competing forces give consumers wider variety and competitive prices. Telecommunications and internet services, for example, have benefited vastly in price reductions. My mobile phone bill is £4.60 a month, my landline effectively free, my internet £25. Competition has delivered this. 

Should some things be nationalised? Yes. I personally have no issue with essential services xuch as energy or water being under state control, but when offered one price would we know this is the best it can be? There would be no shareholders taking a wedge, but in a private enterprise it is their money they've invested, so should they not receive a return for that? When enterprises are run by the government they may not always be driven by incentive and best practice.

In housing, should we only build affordable state homes and all live in white concrete blocks? Is the Conservative attempt at building houses the wrong approach? It certainly needs addressing for sure, but is building a mix of homes at full price, shared ownership, and housing association, wrong? Conservatives themselves will all tell you we need a better housing solution, with reformed planning regulations and affordability in mind. As there is no state construction agency, which I would support by the way, we are at the mercy of private companies for the most part, which need to make a profit and therefore can't only build affordable homes. The nation needs one million affordable rental homes built by tomorrow, yet no political party has drawn up a realistic solution for this.

Why are Conservatives hated so much? 

Conservatives are rich. Conservatives are only in it for themselves. Conservatives are looking after their mates. Conservatives don’t live in the real world…  Any readers guilty of saying these words? Can you tick all of them on your bingo card? There does seem to be a mass hatred of Conservatives based on them being Conservatives. It is presumed they have lived a life different from you, were brought up in a wealthy family, went to Eton, studied politics, served their time in the MP processing centre at one of the universities and here they are lording it over us. How dare they


In spite of the super-rich being less than 1%, the proportion of voters voting Conservative has been up to 44%. The UK is not made up of 40% millionaires. So someone's maths is wrong, or prejudice is at play.


If a boy or girl trained hard, studied hard, went to the right school, the right college, and then came out as a soldier – would you say, How dare you? How dare you go into the very career you have spent your life working for? Or if that same boy or girl ended up as a scientist, a doctor or an electrician. How dare they! 


No matter the family, the education, the backing or the money, somebody will succeed, through having an idea, a will to drive forwards, an opportunity, chance or luck. However they arrive there and choose to serve in public office, who are we to shoot them down?


To me, this is prejudice, pure and simple. Being a Conservative is the modern-day version of being gay. The hate is the same, the spite is the same. At conferences being spat at is the same, shouted at, jeered, things thrown at you. How and why is this acceptable in a modern society such as ours? 


It’s not. Because Conservatives do want everyone to succeed. We are all in this together. Everyone succeeding means better opportunity, greater services, higher talent, and yes, less crime, less unemployment and less deprivation. 


People claim that Conservatives are all the same. You can't tell a Theresa May from a Priti Patel, or a Boris Johnson from a Jacob Rees-Mogg. “They” are all the same. I’ve seen and experienced this generalisation before, being perhaps the only person in the room who has attended a UKIP conference back in the day. Back then UKIP’ers were considered to be far-right skinhead types with swastika armbands who would attack anyone of another colour on sight. You were deemed to be nasty racists of low intelligence. But I followed Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, appreciated the policies, supported the direction and attended. Low and behold, it was a room full of people like you and me. Wealthy and rich, with education and upbringing, together with poor and downtrodden working class types who wanted a better, fairer life. There was a balance of genders and it even had a gay wing. It had policy discussion groups and was for everybody


In psychology there is the in-group out-group theory, a pattern of behaviour that people display when one belongs to a tribe. If you are part of the gang you are accepted; if not, you are immediately the enemy. I know humanists wouldn't fall into this trap, but we have all seen football crowds do this, and in politics it's rife. Why is this? Surely we can be better.

Are the Conservatives to blame for the past 14 years? 

When governments come to power, those who didn’t vote for them, possibly 55% of the country, are already on the attack. Policies take a long time to be implemented, and when a new government takes over this year it’s going to be months or years before any real change is felt. But let's take a moment to look back at a few things in recent history.


The press, Twitter, and many voices I have heard locally are blaming the Conservatives for everything over the past 14 years. Blaming in a way that is biased, unfair, distorted and inaccurate, especially when we look at some of the huge issues that have come our way. 

When in 2010 Liam Byrne, the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, left that infamous note to his successor saying “Sorry, there’s no money” the incoming government clearly had to address the problem. There was no luxury of borrowing more, increasing debt, or lavish spending sprees. Austerity followed. It was tight, it was unpleasant, things were rough and there were long-term consequences for government departments having years of spending freezes – but we were trying to repair the public finances after the financial crash. In time, the graphs were positive, it was going the right way, there was light at the end of a tunnel. We very nearly got there.


Then stuff happened. Brexit was our doing, and there were other bumps in the road. Could another government have done things differently? We actually had five administrations (Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak), but some only see one, blue one. “It’s the Conservatives' fault and somebody, anybody would do better.” 


Covid – oh that was the Conservatives' fault too. As was the energy crisis. With energy, there are decades, generations even, of blame to lay at many feet. It takes ten years to build a nuclear reactor and thirty years to pay for it. There is plenty of blame to go around on that one. Could the Covid response have been done differently?

Yes. Sweden did this, everyone else didn't. Another government would likely have done exactly the same, be it lockdown, urgent sourcing of supplies, and clapping the NHS to make everything better. Hindsight is a valuable commodity. 


Ukraine then followed, with its knock-on effect on food and energy prices, and the cost of living crisis. Conservatives' fault again of course. You can see a pattern forming. I hear this frequently, have heated debates about it, and yet those saying the words don’t see it.


But MPs are just people. People like you and me. Personally, I see them giving up a lot to do a job that is incredibly tough and faced by hatred from all sides. If you’re a local MP like Conor Burns or Robert Syms, you're hated locally by everybody whose life isn’t working out as planned. Or just hated because you’re on the blue team of course. You’re hated by the opposition, and you’re hated by the press. 

Everywhere you go and every action you take is wrong. There is no win, and no recognition when you gain a win. You are a target for the press and they can stalk you indefinitely. The public can protest outside your home, giving your family hassle, as was the case with Tobias Ellwood recently, and yet this absolutely astonishing behaviour is deemed okay by a third of people polled on YouGov recently.


Yet with all of this, if YOUR MP is in office, from whichever party you support, you may imagine that everything will be different. But is the grass really greener? Are people in Wales or Scotland really jumping for joy? In France? In Germany? The US?


Leaders are people just like us. They are us. Any one of you can stand for office this year, get voted in, and the next day you will be hated. The public won't know you, you won't have made any mistakes but because of tribal prejudice, half the country will hate you. Because you're an MP nobody will trust you, and for this your privacy is stolen, your personal life probed and all because you want to make the world a better place. 

Why centre right, rather than left?

As I was out running the other week an analogy occurred to me. Conservatives are the head, the logical party which structures finance and holds to a course to build the country up. Whilst Labour are the heart, the more compassionate team, spending whatever is deemed necessary to buy what the public wants, even if it means borrowing and paying it off forever. A bit like the strict parent and the easy-going one.


Another way of looking at it is “country first” or “individual first”. Conservatives are typically proud to be British, want to promote Britain on the world stage, want the country to be economically strong and then its citizens benefit when all that falls into place. Whereas Labour seems to want to help the individual, to lift the struggling person up, to provide what they need, but seemingly they don't love the country, are not proud to be British, and want to invite the entire world here. They hate the rich, call them names, yet then want to tax them hard. Isn't this parasitic behaviour?


Although global events have made keeping the purse strings tightly drawn a near impossibility, I do believe we should have a responsible approach to spending money. “Headroom” is mentioned frequently on politics shows, but this doesn’t mean spare cash we have gained from tax. It simply means we are not in as much debt as our self-created debt calculator states, and thus we could borrow more.


David Warden and others have repeatedly told me that we shouldn’t be running a country based on how we would run our own personal finances. Steve Laughton in his talk on Modern Monetary Theory mentioned this last month. I still question, why not? Prime Minister Aaron would want the deficit eliminated and the debt paid down. He wouldn’t want to be spending £109 billion on debt interest when that money could be better spent on services. Yet borrowing more seems to be the answer, so that the debt grows. But we then pay more interest next year and so it goes on. 


Another reason I find it such a struggle to vote for the left side of the spectrum is its public disruption approach to getting what it wants. I am anti-protest in the extreme. It’s just something a ‘Transactional Analysis’ Adult wouldn't do. Especially here in the Western world and most certainly not in the United Kingdom. 

In Transactional Analysis, our reactions are depicted as three ego states: Parent is the controlling and instructional, or caring and nurturing side; Adult is when we speak to each other as equals, in a fair and respectful manner; Child can be the playful element or the rebellious stamping our feet tantrum element.


In a country where a TV programme, a blogger, or a petition has the power to change the course of actual politics – standing in a street and stamping my feet is just not going to cut it. History may have had its moments when democracy wasn’t present, with gay pride, suffragettes and other causes – but today, we don’t need protest, we don’t need violence on our streets and we certainly don’t need property destruction and lock-ons. This is a shocking example to the children of tomorrow, where Greta Thunberg views a growing arrest record as a badge of honour.


But of course Conservatives are not the only choice in our political system. UKIP are still there. Reform UK is gaining ground. The SDP are making a comeback and we have the Greens and LibDems holding firm. It is absolutely true that a vote for any of these will give you a Labour government this year, but remember it is a vote for change, more than it is a vote for Labour.


Incidentally, the Green Party won our local humanist poll from the other month.


On immigration, yes it had to be mentioned, I am where the country is, where in fact most of the EU is, and where the global feeling seems to be. Most nations are struggling with their own issues, and are not currently in a position to help others in large numbers. Latest figures show that the UK issued a combined total of 1.4 million permanent visas in 2023 (Home Office stats). This simply is unsustainable on any level.

In summary

  • Humanists can be anywhere on the centre ground spectrum 

  • Conservatives want everyone to succeed

  • Political parties cover a broad area of political thinking

  • Hating an entire group of people needs challenging 

  • There is a lot of overlap on the political spectrum

  • Parties and their voters are not the same

  • MPs are people too

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