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Conviction politics is back, they say. But will the politicians keep it up; and do they really mean it?

If you believe that there is such a thing as truth, then you have to tell those who disagree with you, voters or not, that they are just wrong

By on Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A shopper browses Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher (PA)

A shopper browses Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher (PA)

Now that Lady Thatcher’s funeral is safely over (and turned out, or so it seemed to me, to have been far more warmly supported, in the event, by public opinion than it had been supposed it would be) it looks as though the Thatcher phenomenon is not yet fading from public attention as I supposed that by now it would be. The explanation, of course, is the publication of multiple serial extracts from the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography and the impending publication of the door-stopper volume itself (I look forward with keen anticipation to its weightless arrival tomorrow on my Kindle).

So my subject today will certainly be as current for the next day or so as, according to Janet Daly, it has been since the funeral. The “magic word of the week”, she says, was “conviction”: “there was no longer any question, apparently, about whether ‘conviction politics’ was a good or a bad thing, or whether it was an optional extra for political leaders. (How did that notion ever get off the ground, anyway? After all, what is the alternative: lack-of-conviction politics?) Convictions are simply strongly held, principled beliefs. What business would you have pursuing power if you had no strong principled beliefs about what was right for the country?”

But as she points out, the trouble with that is that until “about 20 minutes ago, it was fashionable to imply that there was something faintly demonic about being a conviction-led leader: that it was tantamount to demagoguery or just implacable bloody-mindedness”. And as she rightly points out, no one has been more guilty of spreading this notion than Cameron’s generation of Tories (she could have added, however, that there are at least two exceptions to that in the cabinet, ie Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, though both to my sorrow are voting the wrong way over same-sex “marriage”).

“Something like real politics is back”, or so she thinks. “Even if nobody is absolutely sure what it might consist of, we have a pretty clear idea of what it should look like. It is fairly crucial that the people who espouse it sound as if they believe in something”. Ah, “sound as if”. There’s the rub. We are used by now to politicians being good at sounding as if they believe this, that or the other. But, as she says, it’s a start.

More than anything, thinks Mrs Daley, what people want – as the nostalgia of last week made undeniably clear – is “a sense of moral mission. Government should be about something. So the present lot of Conservative leaders now realise that they must transform themselves from looking like managers who may be trusted to take common-sense decisions, into the bearers of a sacred duty on which they will never renege.”

But will they be able to keep it up: which is another way of asking “do they really believe it?” In the end, I strongly suspect, they think that convictions passionately held are what they call “divisive”. Admirable Mrs Thatcher may have been in many ways, courageous and far-sighted and all that, but she was also “divisive”: and what that means, they think, is people not voting for you (they think this despite the fact that Mrs Thatcher won three General Elections and they have won none). And being divisive is also uncomfortable. Much better to be tolerant, all things to all men, live and let live…. Mrs Thatcher, after all, was a Christian. Christians bring people together, don’t they? Well, no, actually, not necessarily:

Luke 12:51. Think ye, that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, no; but separation.

12:52. For there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided: three against two, and two against three.

12:53. The father shall be divided against the son and the son against his father: the mother against the daughter and the daughter against her mother: the mother-in-law against the daughter-in-law and the daughter- in-law law against her mother-in-law. (Douai-Challenor)

The truth is undoubtedly divisive: so much is obvious. Unless, that is, like all those whose idea of society is built on the need for consensus in all things, harmful or not, you are someone who doesn’t really believe in truth, someone who thinks that “truth” is a kind of joke: and what does that remind you of? The famous opening sentence of Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Truth” is all most people remember of it: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer”; but the whole essay is worth reading. Its last sentence is less memorable but more powerful than the first: “Surely the wickedness of falsehood, and breach of faith, cannot possibly be so highly expressed, as in that it shall be the last peal, to call the judgments of God upon the generations of men; it being foretold, that when Christ cometh, he shall not find faith upon the earth.” Scary.

Thinking of that contradiction between truth and consensus, I remembered, first, Francis Bacon on “jesting Pilate”, and then Mgr Ronald Knox, in The Creed in Slow Motion, on the same subject. He has been talking of Our Lady’s title “Mother of God” as the touchstone of Christian Orthodoxy. Then he speaks of the only other named non-divine human person in the Creed: “Pilate wasn’t the touchstone of anything; certainly not of truth—he didn’t even believe in truth…. The trouble about him, I suppose, was that he was so anxious to please everybody. He wanted to please Caiphas, he wanted to please the Jewish mob, he wanted to please his wife, he wanted to please Herod, he wanted to please our Lord, he wanted to please St Joseph of Arimathea; and like most people who want to please everybody, he pleased nobody….

“Pilate didn’t dislike Our Lord at all… And yet it was Pilate who crucified him. It was the world of worldly people, with its dislike of a scene, its dislike of a fuss, its doctrine of ‘live and let live’ that put Jesus Christ to death.”

In the end, it was Pilate’s horror of “divisiveness” that led him to do the most terrible thing a human being has ever done. Let us hope, then, that the current fashion for politicians who believe something, who have principles, disruptive or not, lasts a little longer than I fear it may. Let us hope for a durable access of courage to be divisive.