Mr Cameron has made much since his arrival as leader of the Conservatives about how they’ve changed since the 1980s and thrown off forever the tag of “the nasty party”. Now gay-friendly (not always successfully: sorry, can we start this again?) and worried sick about the fate of the “poorest and most vulnerable in our society” the party is constantly wittering on about how the deficit-cutting pain is going to be shared amongst us all, and that those with the broadest shoulders will bear the greatest responsibility. Like all those gold-plated claimants of disability living allowances and housing benefits. But that’s OK because their pain is mirrored by the huge forbearance shown by the middle classes in their stoic acceptance that inheritance taxes can’t be lowered just yet. How I love the new caring, sharing, Tory Party.
Of course the riposte to this kind of criticism is that hopeless romantics like me have no understanding of realpolitik and we need to shape up and smell the deficit coffee. Tories would love to be compassionate – yes, they really would – but Labour’s profligacy has simply rendered it unaffordable. But actually, whilst there is of course some truth in the notion that there are an awful lot more poor people who need help than there are rich fat-cats with pips available for squeaking, it’s not in these economic and large scale policies that the Tories’ boredom with their new-found toy of compassion is most clearly seen. No, it’s in the Tories’ preferred battleground of individualism that their true colours are showing through at their brightest.
Mr Cameron has castigated all those who showed “sympathy for callous murderer” Raoul Moat by joining the Facebook page devoted to his memory. Apparently this demonstrates their moral incompetence. Alongside Mr Cameron’s exceptionally clear grasp of moral theology, Mr Hague has been cosying up to the Americans with his denunciation of the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. Compassion is evidently only a limited quality in the eyes of top Tories. After a short while compassion suddenly becomes transmogrified into collusion with wickedness.
This is fundamentally to misunderstand what the true nature of compassion is. Compassion is not part of a kind of moral arithmetic, such that if you do something very bad then your deficit is so great that the sympathy of others is unable ever to rescue your balance of payments problem. In Raoul Moat’s case the final hours of his life were tragic, and they are not made less so because they were preceded by wicked acts on his part. And it is a fine and good human response to be touched by that tragedy, and to try and enter imaginatively into the horror of those hours. As for Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, there was serious doubt amongst many about the real extent of his involvement in the Lockerbie bombing, and he was terminally ill. Compassion shown to miscreants is not a slap in the face to victims. We do not have fixed reserves of compassion, such that if we spend it on perpetrators we must be withholding it from victims. Compassion is a quality that is indivisible. It has nothing whatever to do with being deserving or undeserving, and all we as individuals should be doing is cultivating our ability to respond compassionately to all situations that require that response.
I’m perfectly well aware that it’s not only our new Tory ministers who have very little understanding of what compassion is really about: they are simply the most current pedlars of public hypocrisy on the subject. And they are also prone to wear their religious convictions on their sleeves. Messrs Cameron and Hague should try reading what Jesus had to say on the subject.