Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Is progressive Conservatism an oxymoron?

Richard Reeves, director of centre left think tank Demos, has been considering Conservative claims to a ‘progressive’ agenda on ‘Comment is Free’. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but a number of passages are particularly pertinent, given the debate which Chris McGimpsey’s comments have sparked and the wider themes of Conservative ideology, with which this blog has been grappling over the past few months.

Reeves is sceptical regarding the claims of conservatism to a long history of prizing social justice. Whilst he acknowledges the bona fides of Disraeli’s ‘one nation Conservatism’ and the legacy of William Wilberforce, he is quick to dismiss the Torys' post-war endorsement of the National Health Service and Keynesian economics. However, regardless that he remains unconvinced by narratives which trace a continuous ideological lineage for ‘progressive’ Cameron Conservatism, Reeves dismisses Labour’s contention that Conservatives cannot genuinely frame a programme which prioritises equality and fairness.

“It is foolish, however, to suppose that the Conservatives are prevented by some political law of gravity from being progressive in the 21st century. ………. To be progressive is to believe that societies ought to move forward, and that the measure of this advance is the expansion of freedoms and life chances for all - but especially the most disadvantaged. Iain Duncan Smith's long-standing interest in social justice helped to prepare the ground; and there are now a number of areas, including civil liberties, the environment and education policy, where the Tories can now plausibly claim to be more progressive than Labour.”

The argument that conservatives recognise the importance of a cohesive and functional society and that they are the natural custodians of the values which such societies promote, are the foundations on which Cameron Conservatism rests.

“The Conservative critique of Labour's policies on poverty and inequality is that they have dealt merely with the symptoms of the disease, without addressing the root causes. In his August speech on the theme of fairness, Osborne said: "To tackle deprivation, it is not enough simply to transfer money - we need to tackle the complex mix of entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, and rising indebtedness that perpetuate the cycle of poverty."”

Whilst he remains doubtful about their innate ‘conservatism, Reeves nevertheless concludes by endorsing the progressive instincts of fleshed out policy which the Conservatives now propound.

“The list includes an expanded health-visiting service for parents, tighter credit controls to protect people from debt, stronger rights of parental leave, and increased funding for schoolchildren from poorer backgrounds. Good stuff, but it is not clear what is especially "Conservative" about these approaches.”

Advocates of its ‘communitarian’ strain will argue that these approaches are very specifically Conservative and that only an erroneous conflation of Conservatism with economic liberalism occludes the convivial relationship between inherently Conservative instincts and social responsibility. Whichever side of the ideological argument one favours, it is undeniable that increasingly Labour's social policies are being questioned whilst the Conservatives' capacity to advance a compassionate agenda is being taken more seriously.


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