When Tories Speak of Love

Rory Stewart, British Conservative MP and contender for the party leadership, made headlines last week after declaring on BBC’s ‘Question Time’ that, ‘the key word that we need to get back to, which is a word which is so powerful, and nobody ever uses in politics, is the word “love”.’

I’m not sure I ever thought I would write this, but the Tory is right (in more ways than one).

When I first read his words, I was sceptical. For one thing, the claim that ‘nobody ever uses’ the word ‘love’ in politics is — simply — wrong. In recent years, love has re-entered our political vocabulary, and politicians all around the world are using it. Moreover, the language of love can be abused. We saw this in 2016, in the lead-up to the US presidential election, when Donald Trump declared his love for Mexico, all the while pushing a politics of fear and distrust of Mexicans.

So, what exactly was this Conservative MP talking about?

If you watch the clip, Stewart begins by saying that one challenge is to heal divisions:

We’re now split — North against South, Scotland against England, old against young. We’ve got to find our way to the common ground. […] Getting to that common ground is about understanding particular details, and understanding particular details is about listening, and sorting things is about acting…

Nobody would disagree that Britain is divided — the culture of fear that the UK participates in reaches right around the world, and it has secured its grip on Britain and the US. As I write in my book Love Notes, it is with love that we will free ourselves from fear’s embrace.

What Stewart got wrong was his suggestion that the word ‘love’ isn’t being used in politics. In fact, the language of love has a long history in politics — one has only to think of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US, and his calls for civic love, to appreciate this point — and it has recently undergone a resurgence — think ‘Love wins!’ and ‘Love trumps hate!’ In the UK, Labour MP Jon Cruddas has spoken about the need for loving politics; and Professor Kehinde Andrews, in his book Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, discusses Black radicalism in relation to love. Overseas, the language of love is even more prominent. In the US, for example, Zen priest angel Kyodo williams is exploring what love means for radical social movement; and presidential candidate Marianne Williamson has released a book, A Politics of Love: A Handbook for a New American Revolution.

I am not going to pass judgement on Stewart’s broader politics. I do not see that as my role; and ultimately, it is British citizens who will have to evaluate it. But on this point, Stewart is right: what Britain needs now is love — and, as he correctly identifies, a big part of that will consist in listening to each other. The precise implications of this might not be what he thinks they are, though…

The Politics of Love has its strongest precedents in feminist, decolonial, and LGBTQI movement. In Britain and overseas, those who have consistently used the language of love in politics have been progressives. The most prominent politician using it right now is US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has declared, ‘I practice a politics of love for all people.’ In Aotearoa New Zealand — where I am from — it was the left-wing Green Party who campaigned on love in our last election. And our prime minister and leader of the New Zealand Labour Party, Jacinda Ardern, has gained a reputation for loving leadership following her demonstration of support for Muslims following the white supremacist terrorist attack in Christchurch on 15 March. (After taking a call from Donald Trump, Ardern reportedly said: ‘He asked me what offer of support the United States could provide. My message was sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.’) Love leads to togetherness — and this, it should be noted, reaches beyond national borders, and beyond continents, even.

If Stewart is sincere in saying that he believes love is what is needed, he would do well to listen to those who have already thought and spoken about it. A lot of these have been women, and many of them women of colour, who have articulated a radical conception of love — one that requires us to fundamentally change our societies. I would recommend the work of bell hooks, who writes in her book All About Love, ‘Were a love ethic informing all public policy in cities and towns, individuals would come together and map out programmes that would affect the good of everyone…’

However, progressives who understand that love is what we need should raise our voices, too, so that this call for listening is heard by as many people as possible. Our response to genuine calls for loving dialogue, like Stewart’s, must not be reactionary. We should, instead, recognise that they point to the first patch of common ground on which we might stand, and work to secure it.