David Cameron speaks at the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution on November 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Liberals are well served by the Conservative Party

With each week, the party is giving more power and responsibility to individuals to shape their own destiny - the essence of liberalism.

Which political party in Britain should you vote for if you are a liberal? Especially after the last week, it seems the Conservative Party is your best choice. The Conservative Chancellor announced a radical policy in the Budget that retirees will now have greater freedom on how they take their pension, liberated from being shackled to a pitiful annuity. Labour, bewildered, is still working out whether it supports this policy, whether it can trust people to manage their money properly.

The Conservatives also press ahead with the progressive raising of the personal tax allowance, which Lord Saatchi has campaigned for for over a decade, to lift millions of low-paid workers out of tax. And this Saturday, thousands of same-sex couples will be celebrating, as they now have the right to marry thanks to legislation introduced by this Conservative-led government.

These are just a handful of examples of the granting of greater power and responsibility to individuals and institutions to shape their own destiny, the essence of liberalism. In recent years, the Conservatives have advocated several liberal policies: a referendum on membership of the EU, giving headteachers more say on who they recruit and how much they pay, allowing nurseries the flexibility to prioritise quality over quantity of staff, and enabling a wider range of organisations – including private and voluntary ones - to tender for the delivery of services including in the NHS. But both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have opposed all of these.

This is not mere cross-dressing or some tectonic political shift. The Conservative Party has in fact had a long-term relationship with liberalism: economic, social and political. Lord Liverpool’s administration in the 1820s pursued ambitious economic liberal reforms: custom duties were relaxed, monopolies limited and restrictions on exports abandoned, an agenda that cumulated in the repeal of the Corn Laws under Sir Robert Peel in 1846. Slavery was abolished by the Tory William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury introduced the Factory Acts, granting basic rights to workers in tough conditions. Under the premiership of Benjamin Disraeli, the vote was extended to millions of skilled working class men. In 1928, the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin passed legislation that gave all women the vote.

For most of the 20th century, Conservatives became the champions of freedom as socialism advanced and the old Liberal Party declined. In fact, some factions from the latter gradually merged with the Conservatives. Until 1968, the National Liberal Party allied with Tories at a constituency level, with joint candidates such as Michael Heseltine. The Liberal Unionist Party, a break-away group that opposed Irish Home Rule, was first in a coalition with the Tories, then their leader Joseph Chamberlain finally agreed to join the Conservatives formally in 1912. Nick Clegg talks very rarely, and only briefly, about Chamberlain; touchy subject, seemingly.

Now, it is of course true that all three main political parties have liberals in their ranks and leadership team. British policymaking has been greatly enriched as a result of this sprawl. But political parties are coalitions themselves: liberals have to negotiate with others in their party who have different philosophical affiliations, and they may find themselves on the losing side in the internal battles over policy and vision. This seems to be happening too often in the Liberal Democrats and Labour at the moment.

Big challenges confront us: an ageing population, climate change and a race with emerging economies to produce highly skilled workforces. The pressures on the state will be unsustainably high, particularly when Britain has to remain a low-tax, competitive economy. We will need a strong dosage of economically liberal ideas to meet these challenges: for example, alternative ways of financing crucial public services such as education and healthcare, including greater contestability in commissioning, loans-based financing and social investment. The Tories to date have been most engaged and enthusiastic about these sort of ideas. Only they, at the moment, seem to have the appetite to pursue the economic liberal agenda we desperately need in the decades ahead.

Yes, liberals in the Conservative Party have to fight their own battles. And their liberalism must be tempered too by conservatism, a philosophy that rightly roots individuals in relationships and social custom. On some policy areas, liberal conservatives have lost: on immigration, for instance, where the party pursues a UKIP-lite message, all caps and clampdowns, endangering national and cultural enrichment.

Liberals are well served by the Conservative Party. For the moment. The liberal parliamentarians, policymakers and activists within it must keep fighting. For a brighter future for the Conservatives lies not in being a refuge for those angry and disappointed with change, but as a home for hopeful younger generations who increasingly identify as liberals.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496