Senator Kennedy's remedies for the plight of the poor 'were, for the most part, mistakes' and 'would have done more harm than good'

Contributed by editor on Sep 10, 2009 - 08:30 AM

Howard's Way.... a weekly column from the Rt. Hon. Michael Howard QC. MP.

10 September 2009

When Senator Edward Kennedy died last month, there was one thing on which all the obituaries, friendly and hostile, agreed. They all paid tribute to the consistency of his liberal views. They all praised him for his devotion to the cause of the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.

Such devotion is indeed worthy of praise. The importance of championing the cause of the underprivileged should be a vital part of the motivation of all who desire to play a part in political life.

Yet implicit in the tributes to Senator Kennedy was the view that it is only those on the left who are motivated in this way. Compassion, they seem tacitly to acknowledge, is the preserve, some say the monopoly, of those on the left.

Conservatives have sometimes contributed to this view of the world. Very often the choice between the two alternatives has been presented as a choice between compassion and competence.

However much those on the left may care, the argument often went; they are so incompetent, that they never deliver on their promises to help those who need it most. So, although few would deny that the left genuinely hate unemployment, it is a remarkable fact that every Labour government in Britain has left office with unemployment at a higher level than it started with – not through a lack of compassion but through demonstrable ineptitude.

The point was well put by a Cabinet Minister who came to speak for me in my first election at Folkestone in 1983. “They care, we cope,” was his summary and the evidence over the decades bears it out.

Much is made of the mess that David Cameron is likely to inherit next year and the difficulties he will face in cleaning it up. But this is the historic mission of the Conservative party. We always inherit a Labour mess. We (almost) always clear it up, however painful that process might be.

Yet this is not, and should not be, the whole story. This emphasis on competence, however justified, implicitly concedes that it is the left, not us, who care. And that is not a concession that is justified, nor one which should be made.

The Conservative tradition has, at its heart, the need to protect those in society who need help. It is a tradition that is alive and kicking today. Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice is but one of the latest manifestations of it – and very effective it is, too.

The argument between right and left is not about who cares most about those who need help. It is about what kind of help they need and which policies are likely to be most successful in delivering it. It is a practical, not a moral, argument. And the right should never concede the moral high ground.

Senator Kennedy may well have been consistent in his compassion for the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. But the remedies he proposed for their plight were, for the most part, mistakes. They would have done more harm than good. And, in the end, that is what really matters.