When the UK electorate returns the next Conservative government, whatever it is voting for, it will not be voting for a return to unalloyed Thatcherism. Resentment against Demos’ Blairite background is one thing, suggestions that Cameron should not steer a centrist course, or should resile from his agenda of progressive conservatism is entirely another. It is no accident that reaffirming commitment to socially responsible policy and distancing the party from the harder edge of free market economics, Cameron has begun to re-establish the poll leads which Labour had eaten into before Christmas.
Whilst Gordon Brown continues sneering at Conservatives, alleging that they form a party which doesn’t understand the economic crisis, his own efforts to circumvent it have included blatant cherry picking of Tory policy. First a plan to reward companies for employing the long-term jobless was pilfered and then Labour adopted a scheme to underwrite bank loans which the Conservatives had been advocating for some months. With the downturn continuing unabated, Kettle’s notion that Brown no longer looks the surest custodian of the economy is gaining credibility.
When Cameron presents the Conservatives as a party which cares about notions such as fairness and equality, he is not only reassuring the British public. He is invoking a narrative which is both persuasive and grounded in reality. Kettle argues,
“There is surely a strong historical case for saying that this is in many ways a progressive, small-c conservative country and for claiming, as Cameron does, that this tradition stretches across parties. And there is indisputably a strong progressive, big-C Conservative thread in its political history, stretching from Bolingbroke through Burke to Peel, Disraeli, Macmillan and Gilmour. Now, if yesterday's words mean anything, it stretches to Cameron too. To pretend this is merely a sham is pitiful.”
The tradition to which Cameron wishes to return is not only attractive to voters; it is the right direction in which to lead his party. Not withstanding financial turmoil, the Conservative leader must stand firm in the notion that there is more to politics than the economy. He must resist the more aggressive assertions of the free trade fundamentalists and strive to deliver fiscal balance and responsibility allied to conservatism rooted in concern for the health of society.
Progressive conservatism is a meaningful and worthy aspiration.