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How liberal is progressive Conservatism?

The progressive Conservatism advocated by David Cameron's party is thoroughly allied to a liberal ag

Perhaps surprisingly, the most lively discussion in British politics today is going on within and around the Conservative Party.

The discussion centres on the concept of ‘progressive Conservatism’. As David Cameron explained in his speech at the launch of the Demos Progressive Conservatism project, the fundamental thesis of a Cameron-led government would be that progressive ends can best be achieved by Conservative means.

As the deeper thinkers of the centre-left – for example, Jon Cruddas – have recognised, this agenda of progressive Conservatism poses new challenges and changes the terms of trade in British politics.

Cameron’s speech set out four goals:

"First, a society that is fair, where we help people out of poverty and help them stay out of it – for life. Second, a society where opportunity is equal, where everyone can, in Michael Gove’s brilliant phrase, “write their own life-story.” Third, a society that is greener, where we pass on a planet that is environmentally sustainable, clean and beautiful to future generations. And fourth, a safer society, where people are protected from threat and fear."

Any thoughtful and honest participant in the debate from the centre-left will, I think, be bound to admit that there is a startling similarity between these four goals and the goals of the progressive centre-left.

In the same vein, Iain Duncan Smith’s work over the past few years on the broken society has changed the terms of trade: its conclusions about the means of reducing poverty are of course controversial; but no one can deny that its intent is progressive and that its means are Conservative. The debate, in other words, has shifted from being a debate about ends to being a debate about means.

This is in many ways an uncomfortable fact for the centre-left.

The centre-left has always yearned for politics to be about values and ambitions rather than about mechanics and means. That, indeed, has been the lure of the left for decades. To find oneself in a position where one’s opponents are asking you to talk about means rather than ends and to engage in careful debate about what works is, therefore, counter-cultural for the centre-left.

One of the effects of this uncomfortable shift in the political debate is that the intelligent centre-left has been forced to experiment with different ways of reinventing an argument about ends rather than about means.

Interestingly, it became clear at the seminar which followed David Cameron’s speech that one such experimental critique – coming, at that seminar, from the Fabians – is the allegation that progressive Conservatism is illiberal because it emphasises the community rather than the liberty of the individual.

One could almost hear the intellectual machinery clanking to produce the argument that Thatcherism was market liberalism which elevated the individual, whereas the more social focus of today’s progressive Conservatism meant elevating the community above the individual.

So an important question now arises: just how liberal is progressive Conservatism?

The natural first step towards answering this question is to establish some water-tight definition of liberalism. But this is a temptation to be resisted.

There is, of course, a vast literature on liberalism, stretching back beyond Mill and forward beyond Rawls and Gray. And, equally obviously, the literature contains and provides a bewildering variety of definitions. But this is one of those cases where prolonged consideration of definitions is all too likely to turn a real question into a philosophical game. For present purposes, the right answer to the question ‘what do you mean by liberalism?’ is Wittgenstein’s answer, ‘I mean what you mean’. We all know attitudes that are liberal when we see them, and we all know attitudes that are illiberal when we see them. The question is whether the attitudes that underlie progressive Conservatism are recognisably liberal.

There is no question of entailment here. Having a progressive agenda does not entail having a liberal agenda. There are illiberal ways in which people have tried, and might in future try, for example, to make things fairer, or greener, or safer.

So the question isn’t whether progressive Conservatism implies liberalism. Rather, the question is whether progressive Conservatism is, as a matter of fact, also liberal in its values and inclinations.

Since this article isn’t meant to be some kind of detective story, I think it’s fair to point out at this stage that my answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’. The progressive Conservatism being advocated by the Conservative Party today is thoroughly allied to a liberal agenda. The Conservative means which are intended to achieve the progressive goals are liberal.

Consider, first, David Cameron’s own description in the same speech of the Conservative means he wishes to adopt:
‘The first …is a belief that we achieve progressive aims through decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions…
…The second characteristic of our approach is closely allied to the first: and that is for government to act wherever possible to strengthen the institutions of civic society…
…The third proposition…is that the foundation of social and environmental progress is economic growth…
…The fourth example of conservative means applied to progressive ends…[is] to ensure we continue to support the public services that are so vital in building a more progressive society…[by]…ensuring that government lives within its means.’
The third and fourth of these propositions cannot be described as intrinsically liberal (or illiberal). It is as possible for a liberal as for an authoritarian to place emphasis on economic growth and on fiscal probity. But the first and second of Cameron’s identified means are intrinsically liberal. One of the defining characteristics of progressive Conservatism – instantiated in a large part of the policy agenda that has so far been published – is the faith that it places in decentralising power and building up intermediate institutions. Progressive Conservatism argues that ‘bottom-up’ works better than ‘top-down’ as a means of achieving economic, social and environmental progress – and that is a fundamentally liberal proposition.

For the same reason, progressive Conservatives have taken an enormous amount of trouble over the last couple of years to develop a policy programme which is post-bureaucratic – a programme that involves the establishment of frameworks rather than the use of centralised micro-management, the provision of incentives rather than the regulation of processes, and the use of politics to encourage cultural change rather than reaching for new legislation at the drop of a hat. This recognition that we are now in a post-bureaucratic, open network age, in which government and the public services need to have a far more open texture, is also profoundly liberal.

So what are we to make of the developing Fabian argument that the communitarian instincts of progressive Conservatism – decentralising power and responsibility to organic communities – contains a particular kind of illiberalism, in the sense that it can be seen as promoting the group over the individual?

The answer is that progressive Conservatism does not promote the group over the individual; what it seeks to do, is to balance the liberty of the community and the liberty of the individual. As John Gray so lucidly set out in his Two Faces of Liberalism, this balancing act between the liberty of the community and the liberty of the individual is a never-ending dialogue within liberalism. Liberals attach value to both of these kinds of liberty, and the fact that progressive Conservatism does so, places it in the mainstream of liberalism.

Moreover, when it comes to the public services, the policy agenda of progressive Conservatism clearly identifies a hierarchy of outcomes: where possible, ‘bottom-up’ should mean opportunity and choice for the individual; where that isn’t practical, ‘bottom-up’ should mean opportunity and choice for the neighbourhood; and only where that, too, is impractical should it mean devolution to intermediate institutions. This hierarchy is fundamentally liberal.

In other words, the communitarian aspect of progressive Conservatism springs from a desire to curtail the power of an over-mighty central state, not from a desire to curtail the freedom of the individual. And it is for the same reason (the desire to contain the over-mighty central state) that progressive Conservatives have argued the case against the measures taken by the authoritarian centre-left over the past decade – 42 days detention, ID cards, and the rest of it.

This last point – the authoritarianism displayed by the centre-left in recent years – illustrates the interesting disposition of forces within current British politics.

There has always been, within both the centre-right and the centre-left, a continuing dialogue between more authoritarian and more liberal voices. Neither right nor left can claim a monopoly on either liberalism or authoritarianism. Today, in Parliament, there are – and there have been throughout the past decade – recognisable figures of the liberal left, and there have been also figures of the authoritarian right. But if we look at the centre of gravity of today’s centre-right and centre-left, there can be no doubt that Blair/Brown represent the more authoritarian strand, whereas Cameron’s progressive Conservatism is firmly in the tradition of the liberal right. Placed within that tradition, it is natural for progressive Conservatives to look to the spirit of individuals, families, organic communities and intermediate institutions, rather than to ‘top-down’ authoritarian action of the central state to achieve progressive goals.