Saturday, July 25, 2009

Compassion is much overrated

When politicians announce that they are compassionate I reach for my wallet because I know that I shall be parted from even more of my hard-earned cash. I also know that a politician's compassion usually means more power for the state, for our elected dictators (though not legislators) and for the unelected regulators.

Therefore, I have been somewhat underwhelmed by the news that the latest recruit to the Tory benches, 27 year old Chloe Smith, MP for North Norwich, is one of the Cameron brand of "compassionate Conservatives". This has been said by too many people for me to link to but Mr Google can help for anyone who wants to read postings and articles.

Compassion is much overrated as a virtue, in any case. It implies a lack of equality as the person who feels compassionate does so from a position of superiority. Sympathy, understanding, empathy are feelings of equality and are, therefore, much harder to achieve; they require knowledge, understanding and imagination as well as humility. "There but for the grace of God go I" is a phrase whose provenance seems doubtful but it sums up well enough the feeling that is most definitely not compassion but something much more useful and admirable.

Ms Smith is not only very young - one of her attractions to the Conservative Party - she is also inexperienced even by the standards of her age. Local school, university, employment by three MPs and a nominal position as management consultant with Deloitte from which she was seconded to the Conservative Party.

How does that compare with the experience of Harry Patch, whose death was announced today? By the time he was 27 he had worked as a plumber, fought in the trenches at Passchendaele, watched his best friends being blown up, was invalided out, married and had two sons, presumably going back to his peacetime employment.

Well, all right, those were unusual times. Few of us have had that kind of experience though many people I know have done as much if not more by the time they were 27. My own life has been remarkably peaceful, born as I was in the wrong place but at the right time.

All the same, by the time I was 27 (yes, yes, it is well in the past) I had lived in four countries and two continents, went to four different schools in three different countries, could speak three languages as a native and another one well, had worked in two different countries, was working on my doctoral thesis while teaching undergraduates. Nothing that can seriously compare to Mr Patch's life or my own parents' experience but still considerably more varied than Ms Smith's.

I know young people of Ms Smith's generation who, on leaving school, taught English in African schools or in China, worked with disabled children in Russia (not easy in a country that lacks a basic humanitarian approach to disability), helped in hospitals for seriously ill children and teenagers, or have already achieved positions of some responsibility in business. What has Ms Smith done that she has the right to feel compassionate? Worked for three Tory MPs and held a nominal position as management consultant with Deloitte from which she was seconded to the Conservative Party.

Men and women, younger than Ms Smith, are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with experience that this ninny can only feel compassionate about but can never understand.

One can go on listing people who have had more experience, have greater knowledge and understanding than Ms Smith (or her chief, the Boy-King of the Conservative Party and his best friend, Georgy-Porgy Osborne) indefinitely. Towards all of them Ms Smith and her party feels compassionate.

There was a time (not a very long one, to be sure, but highly memorable) when the Conservative Party believed that people had the right and the ability, indeed, the duty to run their own lives and the best way a government could help them was by handing back as much as possible of what had been taken away from them.

The family silver was not being sold off as that fatuous old man Harold Macmillan said; it was given or sold to the people who should have the rightful ownership, individual members of the family.

No longer. We now have compassionate Conservatism: people of no knowlege, no understanding, no experience such as Ms Chloe Smith feel that somehow they have the right to patronize us all and to tell us, for our own good, how we should run our lives. Oh yes, and we shall be paying for it all.


  1. 18% of the electorate...shurely a mandate!

  2. If only people had the compassion to do what is right rather than pander to policies that only make things worse in the long run.

  3. Points well made. Labour and the Conservatives are competing for the "compassionate" badge, the LibDems have realised it's looking a little flakey and only the 'fringe' parties are taking a practical view of what must be done.