At the launch of Onward, the new think-tank, last week, Ruth Davidson sang the praises of joy as a political theme. She spoke of it both in terms of what Conservatives say and how they say it – offering joy, as well as adopting a happy rather than dour tone.
On both counts, I broadly agree. Glumbuckets (John Major, Gordon Brown) aren’t easy to warm to, and the true promise of conservatism is the fact that freedom, opportunity, growth and invention maximise human happiness. We should strive to ensure that people can live as they dream of living, not to deliver lists of what they may not do. Socialists specialise in don’t-do-that bossiness, and we should not adopt their bad habits.
At the time of her speech this message of joy was interpreted (accurately) as a rap on the knuckles for the authoritarianism of a certain former Home Secretary – and thereby a rebuke to the right of the Conservative Party over immigration among other things. Davidson’s return to the topic of migration targets last night reinforces that impression.
Don’t imagine that it’s only flinty securocrats who might find themselves in conflict with a message of joy, however.
Consider today’s outing by Sarah Wollaston and the Health Select Committee, who are proposing taxes on chocolate and puddings, and potential bans on popular food-related cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger and the Honey Monster. This is the very embodiment of the dour, gloomy and authoritarian approach, both in policy and in tone, that Davidson warned against.
And her charge is visibly correct: raising the price of the small pleasures that people enjoy, poking their noses into how parents raise their children, even banishing cartoon characters, is misery-guts politics at its most glum. It isn’t even nannying, it’s bullying – an anti-fun form of politics that offers a telling off, not a promise of a better life.
Contrast it with Liz Truss’s message about a Toryism that looks to the opportunities of the modern age, battling for “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom-fighters”, and it should be obvious which approach offers to bring more joy.