Why the Conservatives struggle with empathy

The ‘nasty party’ tag will stick until the Conservatives reject making moral judgements about poorer members of society

Emotional intelligence has become such an important political virtue in the UK this summer that First Secretary of State Damian Green recently sought to reassure BBC Breakfast viewers that the Prime Minister Theresa May ‘is a warm and empathetic woman’. This was in reply to criticisms regarding May’s impassive response to the Grenfell Tower disaster and her seeming failure to consider the concerns of those suffering from austerity, including public sector workers whose pay increases have remained capped at or below inflation rates since 2012. A case in point occurred during the general election campaign when May was accused by Labour of lacking the ‘common decency’ to condemn the fact that some NHS nurses had resorted to using food banks. But as some Conservative ministers indicated that a softening of austerity might be appropriate in light of changing public opinion on state spending, former Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to warn that this was not the right way to demonstrate compassion: ‘Giving up on sound finances isn’t being generous, it’s being selfish: spending money today that you need tomorrow’.

Such moralistic condemnation of those seemingly not in thrall to the virtues of thrift was a persistent theme of the rhetoric of Cameron’s governments, particularly around poverty, which was deemed a result of individuals’ poor choices and lack of self-control. It was these assumed characteristics that informed a distinctive kind of ‘Conservative compassion’, which according to Iain Duncan Smith, architect of Conservative social policy during this period, was about ‘taking the tough choices’ on behalf of the poor. This was contrasted to the sympathy exhibited by the left, which he saw simply as an indulgence that encouraged welfare dependency and eroded personal responsibility.

It is this concern with upholding personal responsibility that we explore in an article on the moral economy of food consumption. Looking at recent political discourse, we note how food banks and obesity have been frequently understood in terms of indolence and ignorance, often in ways that justified the wider agenda of state retrenchment. So in parliamentary debate for instance, the Minister of Employment Esther McVey would assert that food banks had become more prevalent because of individual hardship ‘caused by personal debt, overspending and people living beyond their means’ and national hardship caused by Labour governments doing the exact same things. This assignation of blame was a practice that Cameron himself had endorsed in his famous Broken Society speech, in which he encouraged people not to worry about appearing judgemental and just say what needs to be said. His example: ‘We talk about people being “at risk of obesity” instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise.

While policies to coerce ‘errant’ consumers into making different choices jarred with the neoliberal principle of unrestricted market exchange, and therefore remained difficult to justify ideologically, the use of censure was far more permissible. This approach can be traced to Friedrich Hayek, who saw invidious comparison of others’ conduct as necessary to the inculcation of self-reliance; a virtue that underpinned existence within market society. Within this intellectual tradition, which was embedded within the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher and continued today by think-tanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs (which now has a Lifestyle Economics team dedicated to de-regulating food consumption), personal responsibility became a way to bolster consent for liberal capitalism and bulwark against the supposed totalitarian ethos of socialism. Sentiments of sympathy risked extending a duty of care to others, and put both these things in jeopardy.

So is there a trade-off between self-regarding and other-regarding behaviour? Drawing on Adam Smith’s body of work, we suggest not. In contrast to Hayek, Smith suggests that dispassionate sympathetic interactions – something closer to empathy than compassion – are in fact central to a just and prosperous society, providing the basis for commercial exchange and moral development. It is not self-reliance, then, but self-command that is at the heart of Smith’s moral economy: learning to temper and transcend our passions in light of a sympathetic reimagining of others’ behaviours and likely motives. Needless to say, this reading of Adam Smith is entirely distinct to portrayals of him by leading Conservatives like George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith, who in their references to Smith have entirely downplayed his rejection of free-market dogmatism and socially condescending political interventions based upon supposedly objective moral standards.

It is by returning to Smith’s ethic of self-command that we suggest an alternative liberal conceptualisation of (inter)personal responsibility can be articulated; one which maintains the dignity of individual autonomy without deploying the hostilities of Hayekian neoliberalism to help guarantee it. And it is through such an account that we can also suggest why Theresa May is having such difficulty in attempting to shed the Conservatives’ ‘nasty party’ tag that she famously identified 15 years ago. It is only through a wholesale rejection of moral judgements about poorer members of society that this ideological inheritance can be loosened, and a more authentic – and as Smith shows, socio-economically vital – form of empathy can begin to be practised.