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Principle, ideology and politics

    Banning the use of wild animals in circuses is not everyone’s priority in policy terms. But what struck me about Mark Pritchard’s stand last week was that the ensuing media coverage focused on the implications of his defiance on his political career. He’ll never be a Minister now, they said. And he may well not be. The highlighting of this argument, however, comes with the sense that the media feel he was unwise to speak out. The point that nobody was making is that maybe, just maybe, he actually really cared about this issue. Maybe, for once, here was a politician willing to put principle above personal ambition.

    Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class masterfully exemplified why the media ran the story as they did. The gradual dominance of the political careerist has stuck to such an extent that the media now expect their elected representatives to be acting in their own or party interest first, with principle a cool second place. But are the media right in their assertions? Are politicians all unprincipled careerists?

    For me there is no doubt that there are often incentives for the career politician to put their personal standing above political principle. But the erosion of the portrayal of politician as principled has also been in part due to the gradual dilution of ideology within politics itself (arising through the mistaken belief that the public are somewhat mistrusting of it.) The government, and indeed the opposition, do not seem to have an overriding vision of what they want the country to look like. Instead they labour over each and every opinion poll, u-turning whenever faced with real opposition or scrutiny. People are unclear what the politicians they elected stand for, and what they stand against.

    Some of the tensions within the Conservative party at the policy decisions of the coalition government arise because of this. Many feel they were elected on a Conservative ticket to implement Conservative policy. Constrained by the realism of coalition, the party in government has had to adapt. But this shouldn’t mean that backbench politicians should be silenced in their attempts to remind their leadership what the Conservative party claimed to stand for in May 2010.

    The problem with a lack of ideology, or vision, is that it creates a vacuum – a vacuum that is often filled with calls for naked tribalism, whereby Conservative activists and supporters find themselves defending government policy – which they themselves don’t like – simply because the Labour party is also opposed to it. Indeed, David Cameron, at the Conservative researcher’s summer party last week, told the researchers to “remind their MPs that they are Conservatives…and should vote with the government more often.”

    But is this really the sort of politics we want? Politicians voting for policy they have no ideological or principled commitment to, simply because the government are pushing it?

    There have been other examples of this willingness to compromise principle or belief recently. Yesterday Francis Maude got himself into a right old mess on the Today programme as he attacked public pensions for being unaffordable. When Evan Davis took issue with this, and pointed out that the reforms already implemented were actually leading public sector pensions to fall as a proportion of GDP, Mr Maude seemed stumped. He was defiantly unwilling to use the next line of attack: that public sector pensions are unfair. This, despite the fact that every conservative I have spoken to expresses this sentiment. Conciliation trumped belief.

    The consensual view held by the political class – that the public “mistrusts people with ideology or strong beliefs,” is itself misguided. In its determination to be ‘all-things to all men', attracting the median voter, the political class have in fact alienated a large swathe of the population who desire strong, principled leadership. For example, compare the reverence afforded (even by many Conservative voters) to Tony Benn in comparison to the “they’re all the same” line trotted out about current members. It is a myth that the public are frightened of those willing to stand on principle as compared to conciliation of both their party and the public.

    And for that reason, I congratulate Mr Pritchard for persisting last week. He took up an issue which was important to him, and ultimately won the support of the House. Good on him.

    Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2011, having previously worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics.

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