Politics Needs A Positive Vision To Confront Too Much Negativity

15/09/2016 11:32
ADRIAN DENNIS via Getty Images

Obscene populism, authoritarianism and - in its most extreme forms - severe threats to democracy, human rights and the rule of law are on the rise around the world. Religious intolerance is increasing, disgusting racism is all too present, and civil society space is shrinking. Yet amidst this ugly mix is yet another depressing fact: politics, even in those societies that remain democratic, is becoming disturbingly negative.

I am a Conservative, and so when my party in Britain, at the time led by David Cameron, unexpectedly won an overall majority in the General Election in 2015, I was of course absolutely delighted. However, it quickly became apparent to me that all was not well. While David Cameron and the Conservatives had many positive messages - having rescued the economy from the brink of collapse, created more jobs than any other country in the rest of Europe, a vision for social justice and a record of public service reform - I realised that the reason we won was not so much because of a positive vote for that Conservative vision, but instead a fear that an Ed Miliband-led Labour government would wreck the recovery and a vote against the Liberal Democrats' broken promises. In other words, people voted against a worse option, and perceived hypocrisy, rather than for a positive vision.

Similarly, in the referendum on our EU membership, there was a climate of negativity. Whichever way one voted, it was negative. If you voted Leave, it was because you were against the European Union - for a whole host of reasons, many of which were very legitimate and I respect. I voted Remain, though reluctantly and without enthusiasm, not because I endorsed the status quo but because I feared the alternative.

In Burma, where the people have struggled for democracy for decades - a cause to which I have devoted my life for the past twenty years - while the love for Aung San Suu Kyi is widespread, many - particularly among the non-Burman ethnic minorities - voted overwhelmingly for her and her party, the National League for Democracy, not because of a convincing manifesto but because they were desperate to rid the country of decades of military rule. Even then, under the constitution, the military retains 25% of the parliamentary seats and control of three key ministries.

The epitome of negative politics is the United States. I love America; I am as pro-American as you can find; but I am glad I am not an American in 2016. I never imagined I would hear myself say this, but I want Hillary Clinton to win. But not because I support her. I don't. I don't like her. I have questions about her morality, her ethics and her politics. I don't like the dynastic or familial nature of politics in a country that we look to as a champion of democracy. The Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons: politics as a family business - no thanks. But the thought of Donald Trump in the White House has turned me into Hillary Clinton's cheerleader. I don't have positive reasons for supporting her - or not many - but the alternative fills me with nightmares.

All this is so wrong. We should engage in politics in order to champion a vision, values, ideas that we believe could make the world a better place - not simply to defeat those ideas that would make life even worse. We need politicians who articulate vision for change, not simply those who play on our moans and groans or strike fear into our hearts - and either make us vote for them for that reason, or vote for their rival because of our fear. Fear-mongers must be defeated by hope-wagers. When David Cameron said in a speech as Leader of the Opposition: "Let sunshine win the day," the cynics and the Victor Meldrews, Alf Garnetts and Basil Fawltys of politics jeered; I cheered.

On a flight recently I watched the film Our Brand is Crisis, about an American political spin-doctor recruited to help a hapless presidential candidate in Bolivia in an election campaign. It sums up the world's woes today - a cynicism beyond belief and yet depressingly realistic. He wins, he betrays his promises, and she has a long overdue moment of enlightenment.

In 2005 I stood as a parliamentary candidate in the City of Durham. I always knew it was unlikely that as a Conservative, I could win Durham, but I fought a campaign based on the vision and values that I wanted to project. I used the platform I had as a candidate to hold a public meeting on the future of the Middle East, hosting a wonderful Israeli and an amazing Palestinian Christian and giving them an opportunity to share their vision of how to achieve peace.

I also held a pro-life public meeting, addressed by Lord Alton of Liverpool, a former Liberal Democrat who left his party when they adopted a blatantly pro-abortion stand and now sits as an independent Crossbencher. He told a story in his speech which he had not told in a long time. It was the story of the Oxford Student, an undergraduate in 1987 who pleaded with his girlfriend, whom he had made pregnant, not to proceed with aborting the child as she planned. He launched a legal challenge, and so impressed was she with his courage that she agreed not to abort the pregnancy on condition that he raise the child and she have nothing more to do with them. The child was born, and a life was saved.

What Lord Alton didn't know as he told the story - a story that was not in his notes, he had not planned to tell, and came to him only as he was on his feet - was that anyone remotely associated with the story could be in the room. At the end of the event a man approached Lord Alton and myself. "I was the Oxford Student," he said. A few days later I had tea with him, his wife - who is not the mother of his daughter - and the young woman who, if it had not been for his courageous stand, would not be in the world today. The daughter who might have been aborted was about to start university. My mind went back a few days to when we were planning the event. A student helping me in the campaign asked me if it was an anti-abortion meeting. I shook my head. "It's a pro-life meeting," I said. It is all about tone, emphasis and values. What are you for, not just what are you against?

Britain's new Prime Minister, Theresa May, might be beginning to challenge this status quo in politics. She shows signs of trying to build a different politics. She has talked about a government that works for all, not just the "privileged few", and about building a true meritocracy. There are the makings of a positive vision in Mrs May's Conservative Party, especially when pitched against Jeremy Corbyn's far left revolutionary threat. British politics might perhaps return to what it should be: a battle of ideas instead of the trench warfare of glitz and glamour, soundbite and public relations management.

In a recent lecture in Madrid, Standpoint's editor Daniel Johnson says this: "To be a conservative means to reject the politics of negativity -- anger, revenge, hatred, guilt and resentment -- and instead to pursue a positive vision: a liberal-minded vision of generosity and justice, of peace and prosperity, of democracy and conviviality under the rule of law. To be a conservative means, in other words, to take the best ideas of the past and apply them to the present: not in a negative spirit of reactionary fear of the future, but embracing this world as we find it, with all its defects and depravity, its opportunities and its glimpses of divine glory, in the hope of improving it before we leave it for a better place. Conservatives are conscious that the material world matters to us all, but that it is not the only one; just as we know, too, that those living in it are not the only people who matter, for we cherish the generations who have come before us and learn from them, while never forgetting that we are but the harbingers of posterity, the generations to come who will inherit the world that we bequeath them. Conservatives feel the weight of history not as a burden, but with gratitude for the responsibilities that have been placed upon us by God. We are responsible for the preservation of the civilisation that has formed us and of which we in turn must endeavour to be worthy. For us European conservatives, our primary duty is to the civilisation of the West; but our responsibilities do not stop there. Wherever in the world the forces of barbarism seek to destroy humanity and liberty, we must resist and overcome them. If we do not, they will seek us out sooner or later. Even if they fail in their attempt to annihilate us, physically and culturally, the barbarians may do great damage."

I agree with Daniel Johnson, and I believe politics around the world urgently needs that positive vision - that sense of what are we for, not just what are against. "Better to light a candle, than curse the darkness," the saying goes. Of course we need to shine a light on the darkness of the world, expose injustices and abuses, and so much of my work involves that. But it needs to be about more than simply exposing evil. It needs to be about promoting good. We are for liberty because it is liberating; we are for entrepreneurship because it is creative; we are for love and marriage and family and friendship and community because they are enriching, rewarding and empowering; we are for values that enhance life. Daniel Johnson's lecture is well worth reading in its entirety - and that fresh vision of a positive politics is worth searching for. There is light, if we seek it, to contrast the current grim reality of so much of the world's politics. Let's think what we are for, as well as what we are against.