This article appeared in this week’s Universe which hits the pews today – no online version, so am putting in on my old blog as I can’t seem to access the new one for reasons unknown …
If there is one thing that denotes the modern politician, it is the certainty of their convictions. Even before EL James made it a cliché, politics has always tended towards the black and white rather than shades of grey. Nuance doesn’t feature terribly often. Policy proposals are usually presented as absolutes, guaranteed successes, where all the pros and cons are sifted out behind the closed doors of a policy making process.
But to me, doubt about policy and politics is a central component. Argument often rages over whether doubt and faith are compatible – but Thomas Aquinas leaves me in no doubt that faith without doubt is a meaningless faith. So should it be with the political creed. It isn’t just necessary, but healthy. If you question your core beliefs, you are strengthened, as you have not only confronted the positives, but also considered the arguments to the contrary and found them wanting. If you passively accept the dictates of faith, then that faith is more shallow exercise. The comforting nostrums of a faith which is nothing more than a social calendar of high days and holidays, smoke and bells, boxes to be ticked – that is not so much a faith as a social lifestyle choice. Those politicians who follow the Christian faith must challenge themselves to account for their choices through the prism of their religious beliefs. We have to ‘do God’ whether we like it or not, because He should be present every moment.
So soon after the loss of Lady Thatcher, now might not seem to be the time to sermonise against certainty in politics – were it not for the fact that Lady Thatcher was the ultimate narrative politician. Certainty arose because of the firm underpinnings of her political and personal philosophy. All decisions were refracted through a very clear personal prism – rather than a shifting ebb and flow of daily opinion polls and focus groups that nudge us a few degrees east or west of what our conscience says should be our true compass bearing. The ‘doubt’ for her was ‘page one, line one’ of her political narrative.
As a Member of Parliament, I would be much the worse off if I did not doubt everything I and the Government do. That is not to say that I disagree – far from it – but politicians need to spend more time explaining the differing weight they attach to the positives and negatives of their decisions, if only to better explain them. It is no longer enough to pronounce ex cathedra for a politician – we are tainted by the notion that getting re-elected matters more than doing the right thing. It seems to go unsaid that the politician who places getting re-elected ahead of doing right is one who does not deserve to get re-elected in any case.
As a Catholic Member of Parliament, Catholic social teaching is therefore a great resource to help with the doubt and reflection which is so essential. Consideration of the political role of Catholic social teaching all too often boils down to controversial rows amidst election campaigns about whatever document the Catholic Bishops Conference may have published in the run-up. The Common Good remains a controversial example from 1997. It has reduced us to a position where Catholic social teaching is seen to be inherently left-wing, and something that no right-thinking Conservative would ever give a moment’s thought to. Thinkers such as Philip Booth at the IEA have started to counter that trend of lazy thought however, and established a fruitful discourse. The true treasury of political thought that lies within Catholic Social Teaching from Rerum Novarum and its centennial successor of 1991, Centesimus Annus, remains to be adequately mined, and Catholic politicians on the right have an obligation, I believe, to further its exposition.
It wasn’t by chance in my maiden speech as an MP that I highlighted human dignity. I may have applied it specifically to those to whom the state has a particular duty of care – from the elderly in NHS hospitals to young offenders in the criminal justice system – but the notion of human dignity has to lie at the centre of our world view. For how can an imperfect state perfect the human condition without individual action? Without virtue in statecraft, without virtue in individuals, human dignity will always be marginalised.
Too often, perhaps, dignity is measured as a material concern. Whether human dignity is upheld is a matter of measuring income, when perhaps it should also be a matter of measuring something more spiritual inside each individual. Human dignity is often seen as something in the gift of society as a whole, which we must collectively nourish. It is rarely seen as an individual capacity which each of us must nourish in ourselves to bestow on each other. If the measure of dignity is solely material, then the very concept of human dignity itself is impoverished. How often do we ask what dignity means, for example, in the context of the benefits system?
The infamous Thatcher quotation that there was no such thing as society is the great ‘unfinished’ quotation of modern politics. And its completion is perhaps the great challenge to all politicians today. Rather than cling to the collective notion of society which denies the individual, we truly are responsible firstly for ourselves, and then for those in our families and communities. That is a much more challenging prescription, perhaps, than a sit-back-and-wait-for-society approach that so many recommend. In this version of ‘dignity’, the measurements are not material but spiritual also – something inherent in our individual natures that we must satisfy.
If modern politics is about navigating our way through rapid economic and social change, and providing the leadership that maintains solidarity through that change, then you do need as a politician a compass. You need to be equipped with doubt and a good degree of humility, conscious of the fragility of human relationships. And Catholic social teaching offers great, unexplored avenues for the centre-right to explore as we construct new narratives for a new political age.