It has come to this. No politician can enunciate a cohesive conservative philosophy and get away with it. In every meaningful sense, a conservative politician is now an oxymoron.
Polite Society, priding itself on its tolerance, will just about tolerate the odd droplet of a conservative idea – provided its taste is diluted in a glassful of conformist, progressivist rubbish. But serving such ideas neat is a one-way ticket to political oblivion.
This brings me to Jacob Rees-Mogg, whom I like as much as I’m capable of liking any politician. The other day I watched a dozen of his YouTube videos and found him English, intelligent, articulate, English, witty, well-spoken, lucid, English, well-dressed and viscerally conservative.
Yet the global cooling of the political climate towards conservatism is such that even Mr Rees-Mogg can’t openly challenge the prevailing liberal consensus – even though he has the ability and, I’m sure, a longing to do so.
In addition to being a visceral conservative, Mr Rees-Mogg is a devout Catholic, which puts him in the way of the double whammy of liberal opprobrium.
The only way he can protect himself is to claim that his Catholicism in no way affects his political judgement. That is lamentable.
If he really does keep his religion and his politics in two non-communicating vessels, is he really a devout Catholic? If he doesn’t but pretends he does, is he really an honest man?
One video illustrates these points perfectly. Mr Rees-Mogg was interviewed by a female TV journalist, which is a synonym for a leftist. Paying lip service to the ethics of her profession, the interviewer tried to sound impartial, but that didn’t quite work.
Her unspoken yet clearly discernible aim was to trap Mr Rees-Mogg into saying something that would make him sound like a marginal oddity, an upper-class reactionary completely out of touch with reality.
She knew that was her aim and so did Mr Rees-Mogg. Hence he was as careful to sidestep the traps as she was industrious in laying them.
The interviewer had an important task to perform. Mr Rees-Mogg isn’t just a modest backbencher, which he continued to insist he was. He’s the leader of the parliamentary Brexit group and, some say and he denies, the future leader of the Tory party.
Making him come across as a stick-in-the-mud crank was therefore an important assignment, and the interviewer got to work. Would Mr Rees-Mogg oppose gay marriage and abortion if he ever rose to leadership?
The trap was there and it was gaping. An affirmative reply would put a self-satisfied smile on the interviewer’s face: job done.
And a negative reply would make Mr Rees-Mogg come across as a sleazy opportunist ready to betray his principles for immediate political gain – a typical modern politician in other words.
Mr Rees-Mogg was well aware of the implications. Hence he displayed footwork of balletic agility trying to dance around the trap.
Parliament has spoken on these issues, vox populi has spoken through Parliament, and vox dei has spoken through vox populi, he said, or words to that effect. So there’s nothing more to discuss. Case open and shut.
Yes, persisted the interviewer, who wouldn’t let her wriggling fish off the hook quite so easily. But do you personally oppose those noble causes?
I don’t remember the exact words of Mr Rees-Mogg’s fleet-footed reply, but the gist was that he had no remit to oppose homomarriage or abortion as a politician. However, as a practising Catholic, he had to oppose them, if only in the privacy of his own home.
That reduced his faith to the level of a quaint personal hobby, like bird-watching or collecting socks. His message was the same as that put forth 60 years ago by JFK: I’m a politician who happens to be a Catholic, not a Catholic politician.
Mr Rees-Mogg then began to defend freedom of speech, regretting that it didn’t seem to be extended to Catholics as widely as it was to Muslim preachers of hate.
That was a good and necessary argument, but an irrelevant one – and, what’s worse, an evasive one.
I’m sure if Mr Rees-Mogg and I discussed this subject over dinner, he’d readily agree that it isn’t necessary to evoke Catholicism or any other confession to make a strong argument against homomarriage and abortion.
I’m not saying that such an argument could be confidently won, but it certainly could be plausibly made, and in several ways. An appeal to millennia of tradition would work against homomarriage: marriage in the West has always been a union between a man and a woman.
Something that’s been around for millennia is ipso facto worth keeping, but that’s not the only possible argument. One could also go into the social and biological significance of marriage, the critical importance of that institution to society present and especially future.
Marriage is demonstrably one concept where enlargement begets diminution – and eventually debauchment. Each time a homomarriage is officiated by the state, a chunk is chipped out of the very institution. Repeat this over time, and this building block of society will crumble away completely.
You see, this outline of a possible argument makes no reference to Catholic doctrine. The same is possible with abortion.
Accepting the sanctity of human life might have been a Christian imperative originally, but it can admirably stand on its own two secular legs.
In a civilised, which is to say Western, country, a human life can’t be taken arbitrarily and without due process. Hence the argument isn’t about the Catholic catechism.
It boils down to deciding whether a foetus is part of the mother’s body, like her appendix, or a sovereign human being, like her child.
If it’s the former, she can abort it: not many people raise moral objections to appendectomy. If it’s the latter, she’s committing infanticide, and many people still object to that.
Granted, a foetus isn’t yet fully a person. But here one might invoke Aristotle’s teaching about potentiality and actuality.
A foetus is a person not actually, but potentially. Conception doesn’t produce a person, but it does produce a human life that will eventually become a person.
And human life must be assumed to start at conception because no other point can be pinpointed with reliable accuracy. Hence abortion at any point of gestation is tantamount to the gratuitous taking of human life.
Had I been the interviewee, I would have made such points without making a single reference to Christianity for fear of losing my audience, securely indoctrinated in the tenets of progressivist atheism.
But I’m not a politician, and Mr Rees-Mogg is. That’s why he couldn’t respond in that fashion and hope to remain a politician for long.
This isn’t so much criticism of this immensely able politician as a comment on today’s politics in general. Or, even broader, on our time where the only sound political philosophy, that of conservatism, has no place.