Michael Howard - it's only make believe

The reinvention of Michael Howard took a rather curious turn with a New Year message in the form of a personal "I Believe" credo. It was treated with dismissive amusement by opponent and commentator alike, and, certainly, there is much if it which is risible. However, it would be much better to treat it as a document with serious intent and to use it as a basis for debate with Conservatives. It hardly befits those of us who have criticised the increasing superficiality of politics today to dismiss any attempt to express philosophical beliefs. Banal Mr Howard's credo may be but it's the best we've got.

The importance Michael Howard attaches to his sixteen statements is clear - they are "the set of beliefs which brought me into politics", and he believes that "these beliefs are distinct from those which motivate politicians from other parties." Well, that's a relief!

The first thing that should strike a Liberal when reading Howard's credo is that it is entirely confined to Britain. Not one statement is international in content nor even refers to men and women outside the UK. It is as if human society and individual aspiration does not exist, or at least does not matter, outside our national border. As has often been remarked upon in relation to Michael Howard, as the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant, it is particularly puzzling that nothing of his family's history influenced his entry into politics. As a member of a party that does not recognise the notion of national sovereignty, I am in principle in favour of abolishing borders. Consequently not only do I welcome Howard's family to the UK as refugees in danger, but I also welcome economic refugees, who, after all, are only following the example of Norman Tebbit's father who, famously, got on his bike and looked for work. Michael Howard apparently only believes in assisting British citizens.

The second aspect of it that is significant is the complete lack of any sense of community. For Michael Howard only individuals, families and the nation state exist. Given the ease with which even a suitably anodyne phrase could have been inserted, one can only assume that any concept of men and women freely associating within a neighbourhood, or joining together to achieve common aims, does not occur to him. Nothing seems more natural to the Liberal, or, apparently, more unnatural to the Conservative, than the manifest existence of that human society to which people instinctively and naturally belong. Of course, there are legitimate individual aspirations; of course, there are anti-social elements; and of course there are those who see combination as a tool of exploitation, but a politician who lacks an awareness of the vital importance of human society, with neighbourhoods evolving with sympathetic "state" assistance, rather than being planted by planners, is doomed to continue the relentless, incremental and unrewarding path of repression so beloved of David Blunkett and his Conservative predecessors. Producing medicine for symptoms rather than treating the disease is the besetting sin of modern politics, nationally and internationally.

Howard's mind is at least typically Conservative in that he sees individuals as essentially selfish, just as, at the opposite pole, the socialist sees individuals as essentially altruistic. The Liberal understands the duality of human nature, ie that selfishness and altruism exist within each of us, and that one of the politician's key tasks is to foster the altruistic dimension and to inhibit the selfish. In this context the parallel with the role of the jury is instructive. Patrick Devlin, that great jurist of the 1960s and '70s, compared the election campaign to the proceedings in court, and the electorate to the jury. He argued that, just as juries regularly produce verdicts that are "progressive" rather than "populist" -  such as in the Clive Ponting and the Randle and Potter cases - so can the national "jury" providing the same aspects apply, ie the electorate has a sense of a group identity, with interaction within the group, that the case for each party is thoroughly argued in front of it, and that what it decides happens. Given such a context Devlin argued that the elector  votes as he or she sees a "right thinking person" voting, rather than from his or her own prejudices. 

Third, there are no direct statements of belief on the environment and on ecological imperatives. Without the survival of our planet and without the balance of nature being preserved, everything else is castles in the air. Shimmering such castles may be, but they are chimera nonetheless.

Having first focussed on what is missing it is easier to analyse what is present. Half of Michael Howard's statements - eight out of the sixteen - can, I believe, be subscribed to by Liberals and by most Social Democrats. These set out the individual's aspiration for health, wealth and happiness and the state's responsibility to facilitate it, rather than stifling it. Two are plainly wrong: Howard states that he does not believe that "one person's poverty is caused by another's wealth." Unless he has discovered some hitherto unknown alchemy that can create money  without detrimental consequences or which can enable "added value" to continue indefinitely, this statement is wholly contrary to simple arithmetic, and is certainly antipathetic to Margaret Thatcher's anti-inflationary zeal. More or less, there is a finite pot of money available, with the consequence that whatever one person receives leaves less for everyone else. It follows, therefore that one person's wealth directly causes another's poverty. 

The second statement that is wrong is that he does not believe that "one person's sickness is made worse by another's health." There is health "pot" that is the equivalent to the economic "pot" in the sense that there is a finite amount of health care available. At whatever level this is pitched (and, in passing, I would comment that health produces by far the most hypocritical statements by politicians of all parties) it will be finite and, consequently, a treatment received by one patient depletes the pot for others. A West Leeds constituent once came to see me in some distress. Her sixty-plus husband had been diagnosed as being in need of a heart bypass operation and had been told by the surgeon that it would be at least six months before this could be done on the NHS. On the way out of the consultation, the surgeon's secretary told my constituent that, if they could pay, then the operation could be done by the same surgeon the following week. Of course, she was unable to pay, hence her quite understandable distress. Clearly a well off person's private health provision made my constituent's sickness worse. 

Next, there are three of Michael Howard's statements that seem acceptable at their face value but which make me feel uncomfortable. These relate to the glib and ambivalent comments on the need now to be protected from aspects of the state's apparatus initially introduced to protect us; to fulfilling potential; and to equality of opportunity. All three statements imply judgements on values that should disturb Liberals. In particular they suggest that those intelligent and astute enough to be able to cope - presumably economically - ought to be able to exploit that capacity without reference to those left behind, even though the divisions in society thus caused will undermine stability and eventually render their wealth unspendable. Liberals do not value academic intelligence intrinsically above sensitivity or above artistic or cultural skills. The innate ability of each individual should be at the disposal both of that individual and of his or her community.

Finally, Howard ends with two populist and essentially obscurantist statements. His number fifteen is that Britain should defend her freedom "at any time, against all comers, however mighty." Against George W Bush, and the imprisonment of British citizens for over two years at Guantanamo Bay without charge or legal representation? As Germany and France had the vision to see over fifty years ago, freedom comes by integration and by sharing sovereignty. Three wars in seventy years were enough for them. Spain and Portugal were fascist dictatorships until the mid 1970s. Greece was in the hands of the military until 1974. All are now solid democracies within the EU. Freedom is not a nationalistic slogan for the next election but a statesmanlike choice in the best interests of society as a whole.

How then should Michael Howard's credo be judged? A gold star for effort, and he can put the pencils out tomorrow. But, let's take his final, sixteenth, statement on the "noble past" of the British people and their "exciting future" and debate with the Conservatives whether that has to be a Liberal future or the crumbling and repressive future of ID cards, CCTV, and the police state, whether run by Howard or Blunkett.

22 January 2004