Jesse Norman plays the trumpet in the parliamentary jazz band and his hero is Louis Armstrong, although he says “don’t ask me to choose between him and Bob Dylan”. The other trumpeter in the group is Lord Glasman, Ed Miliband’s “blue Labour” guru — “so it’s blue-on-blue blues,” the Tory MP says.
It is a neat coincidence. Mr Norman is David Cameron’s philosopher-in-chief, the godfather of Tory modernisation, who has done more than anyone to put the Prime Minister’s thinking into words. Having worked as an adviser to George Osborne, and Boris Johnson, before becoming an MP at the last election, he has written books called The Big Society and Compassionate Conservatism. His latest work on Edmund Burke, the founder of modern Conservatism, is subtitled Philosopher, Politician, Prophet and there is a bit of all three in the author himself. “Ideas are always in charge,” he says. “A politics which is devoid of thought can’t be valuable — but principle has also got to find an expression in action.”
This week, Mr Norman was appointed to the Conservative leader’s new advisory board on policy and invited into No 10. “I said I’d love to do it — although, of course, you make sure it’s without prejudice to other things you want to do,” he says. “A well-functioning party has people who strike the right balance between loyalty and independent-mindedness.”
The man who led the Tory rebellion on House of Lords reform — and received the “Eton hairdryer treatment” from Mr Cameron in the division lobby — hopes that involving MPs in the policy process will lead to fewer omnishambles at the top. “We’ll be coming up with ideas, consulting with colleagues to take the best suggestions from the parliamentary party and also scrutinising policies that are being generated to see if they are effective and fit a certain political message and direction.”
His fellow Old Etonian Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, will be in charge, but Mr Norman insists it won’t be all mates at No 10. “There isn’t a lot of clubbiness. That may sound bizarre, but I didn’t know any of the people at the top of government when I was at school. I did know Boris, who was a couple of years below me, but then everyone knew Boris, he was a rather distinctive figure. Jo is much younger. I knew Cameron’s brother slightly, but not Cameron himself.”
It is, in his view, no coincidence that so many from the school, far right, are in powerful positions. “Eton is a school which is dedicated to public service. If all these people were insulated and the product of self-regarding privilege then that would be completely different. What I hope is that you have people who are intensely conscious of the luck they have had and keen to pay it back.” There is, he believes, an ethos that encourages success. “It’s one of the few schools where the pupils really do run vast chunks of the school themselves, so they don’t defer in quite the same way. They think there’s the possibility of making change through their own actions.”
Mr Norman and his colleagues will have their work cut out to change the Conservative Party’s fortunes between now and 2015. But he is convinced that the Tories can win an overall majority at the next election if they get the strategy right. “The party had a period of stubbing its toe, politically, last year. But it’s got it back together again. I’ve always thought the process of getting through this recession was going to be a five to seven-year process, maybe even a six to ten-year process. My message would have been: ‘Don’t elect us if you’re not going to re-elect us. This is a two-term problem.’ The policy now should be about making clear that we need to be allowed to finish the job.” It would be a huge mistake, in his view, for Mr Cameron to shift to the right to head off Nigel Farage. “I certainly don’t think we should be trying to ape UKIP, tacking in their direction. UKIP is a party of protest.”
This could, Mr Norman argues, be a tipping point for the Tory Party, a moment to rediscover a more “One Nation”, less free-market approach. “I hope that, with Mrs Thatcher having passed away, we can recover some of the ancestral sources of wisdom and understanding,” he says.
He differentiates between what he calls “liberal free markets” and “conservative free markets”. As he explains: “The classic liberal position sees people just as economic atoms, then assigns preferences or incentives to them based on mathematics. That’s completely different from the Conservative perception of free markets, which is that they are instrumental, not goals in themselves, and that they are mediated by trust and law and norms of behaviour. I’m pushing for us to rediscover that understanding.” The first view is, he says “socially corrupting and economically disastrous” and the Conservatives must never forget that there is more to life than money. “I don’t think anything important can be quantified — you can’t put a pound sign beside love and happiness.”
The Government should, he thinks, do more to support the arts — he is attracted, for instance, by the idea of giving musical instruments to disadvantaged children. “If at some point we emerge from this crisis and there is some money, the interesting test will be, do we give it back to people in tax cuts, do we invest it in better public services, or can we think about some of these things that would improve social cohesion?” There is, he insists, such a thing as a society. “I’ve always thought the Big Society idea was not only a brilliant idea but a deeply conservative idea,” he says. “The job of politics is to improve the social order. There should be ordered liberty; that allows humans to flourish, but at the same time doesn’t just give them licence. It doesn’t preach, but it does have a moral component to it.” Mr Norman quotes Burke’s description of “little platoons” that help a country thrive. “For me, compassion should mean fellow feeling — it’s not about pity,” he says. He supports the Government’s welfare reforms. “We do [as a country] have an idea of people who deserve support and people who don’t.” But he will also be encouraging the Prime Minister to take on the “vested interests” at the top. Too much of the City and business has in recent years been perverted into what he calls “crony capitalism”.
“To me, crony capitalism is when the interest of companies becomes completely divorced from the public interest, and when the rewards within the firm become divorced from performance,” he says. “This is by no means just a problem in the banks. Look at how executive pay has escalated over the past few years and the detachment of management pay from the earnings of people at the bottom.” He points to Goldman Sachs, the American investment bank that floated 14 years ago. “Goldman Sachs was a partnership, started in 1869 by Jewish immigrants to America. Then, in 1999, the partners decided that they were going to help themselves to all of the accumulated capital and goodwill that 130 years of partnership in Goldman Sachs had created. I regard that as gross misbehaviour.” He also takes a dim view of companies such as Google and Amazon that minimise the tax they pay. “They don’t do themselves any credit.”
Conservatives should, Mr Norman insists, be as concerned about crony capitalism as Labour. “The Tory Party has been caricatured as on the side of the rich, but if you look through history the Conservatives have been seen as the party of the family, the party of the nation state, not the party just of business or finance. It is being embedded in the core institutions of Britain that has always been the strength of the party.”
At 6ft 5in, Mr Norman is one of the tallest MPs. But he has never been an alpha male, and insists he is not a natural rebel. “I’m a conviction politician but I’m not a conflictual politician,” he says. But the Government’s attempt to create an elected upper house, similar to the American Senate, appalled him as a historian, and a philosopher, as well as a politician. “In America they have a system that leads to gridlock. We have a parliamentary system. The House of Lords is just a suggesting and delaying chamber. The result is we have high levels of accountability, transparency and flexibility. We’d be crazy to give that up.”
His stand won him respect among his colleagues and he is now talked of by some as a potential future leader. But he has never been a plotter.
“I don’t really take it seriously, so that hasn’t been a bonus or a hindrance,” he says. “Of course, occasionally you ask what things would be like in a benign Norman dictatorship, but that’s about as far as it gets.”