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