"There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party."
- Theresa May, then Conservative Party Chairman, 2002*
Politicians tend not to want to be seen as nice. Niceness has the stink of naivety about it, a wide-eyed childishness that looks at the world and wonders why people cannot just get along. It is an attitude that risks being taken advantage of. A politician who is nice to everyone will, sooner or later, be nice to someone who does not deserve it. They will be forced to justify their misjudged compassion and, accused of iniquity, they will lose the liberating mantle of ‘tough but fair’.
In the West, being nice is associated with the left wing, nastiness with the right. Of course, there are plenty of genuinely compassionate conservatives and ardent socialists have been responsible for ruining countless lives. However, with the political centre of gravity currently being towards the right, conservatives have less distance to drift before they reach the unpleasant extremities of their ideology. A the present time, a swing to the right is likely to be more expensive in terms of human cost than a swing to the left, but both sides are capable of being the Nasty Party.
The creed of the Nasty Party is an unpleasant philosophy that depicts compassion and kindness as opposed to pragmatism. This is nonsense. The instinct that compels people to prefer to see an undeserving person suffer than be rewarded might be prevalent but it does not arise from rationality but from callousness and cruelty. A pragmatist should still seek to be as kind as possible, and avoid cruelty, their only limitations should be resources with which they have to work.
Yet nastiness can be electorally successful, particularly during times of economic hardship. With less wealth to go around people are more sensitive to unfairness. The prevailing disposition tends towards systems that ensure no undeserving person is enriched, even at the expense of the deserving. Were the left in power, this would take the form of redistributing wealth, potentially driving honest people out of business, penalising their dependants. With the right in the ascendency, entitlements and benefits are cut with the aim of forcing those who can to work, but risking impoverishing some who genuinely cannot.
There is one sense in which the Nasty Party is pragmatic; its policies are easier to implement with scarce resources. The less concerned they are about hurting people, the more options they have. Warfare can be simple if civilian casualties are tolerated. Cutting the welfare bill can be achieved if homelessness is acceptable. Immigration can be controlled more easily when racism thrives. Land can be redistributed en-masse if penury is endured. The Nasty Party’s politicians will portray this as taking the hard decisions. This is misleading. The decisions are not difficult, but harsh.
Nastiness, as an ideology, is seductive. Its politicians can become perversely proud of their cruelty, believing it to show they are capable of taking decisions that others cannot. They start to use it as a means to determine whether to support a policy, ignoring evidence to the contrary. In the absence of opposition, they become the champions of misery and suffering as aims in their own right. It is not too far to slide before slavery, torture and death become viable options to them. The innocent can be sacrificed to ensure the punishment of the guilty.
There are times when a decision is needed quickly and the only available options will result in hurting someone. Politicians must indeed be able to confront these situations decisively and make the decision that does the least harm. If a runaway train is hurtling towards a carriage of children and their hand rests on the lever that will divert it towards a single person, pulling the lever is the right thing to do. However, they should also do everything in their power to stop the train and thereafter do everything to avoid the situation recurring. They should not just sit back, satisfied that their willingness to hurt people will make every decision an easy one.
*Fucking hell, she became Prime Minister.