Are Cameron’s Conservatives Britain’s true progressives?
By renegotiating the sharp-elbowed middle classes’ contract with the welfare state, the Tories might successfully be meeting their own definition of what is and isn’t progressive
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
It is four-and-a-half years since Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt first made the claim that the Conservatives under David Cameron were the true progressives in British politics. Then, of course, they were enjoying the luxury of opposition. Now (for the moment at least) they are ministers in the Tory-dominated coalition that has run the country since May 2010. Then it was all about striking counter-intuitive poses capable of cutting through to the chattering classes and waking them up to the possibility that this was a very different Conservative Party to the one Labour had beaten so easily in three successive elections. Now, having beaten Labour (albeit by a much smaller margin than they had hoped for), the Tories can be judged according to their deeds rather than their words.
That task, however, turns out to be slightly more complicated than it first seems. If we go back and look at what Clark and Hunt actually meant when they used the word progressive, it soon becomes obvious that they were using the term in a very particular (although not necessarily wholly peculiar) way. So, too, was Policy Network’s Patrick Diamond when he employed the same term in his stimulating analysis of the challenges posed to social democrats by a new breed of centre-right politician. Their respective definitions dovetail nicely, but – as Diamond is undoubtedly well-aware – they ignore quite a lot of what the word progressive means to most people, especially if those people regard themselves as social democrats.
Diamond’s definition revolves around strategy rather than ideological direction. Looking around Europe, he suggests – pretty convincingly – that the centre-right has been able to win back power and may well be able to hold on to it by (1) winning what the late Jim Bulpitt called ‘political argument hegemony’ on the economy by insisting that the problem was not so much irresponsible markets as irresponsible governments, (2) offsetting its scepticism about the public sector by trumpeting its commitment to achieving the public good through the big society rather than the bloated state, (3) stressing that its commitment to traditional values no longer implies outright hostility to non-traditional lifestyles, and (4) emphasising that, in foreign affairs at least, what counts is what works.
All this was very much part of the Conservative offer to the electorate in the run up to the 2010 election and, for the most part, has been followed through in government as anyone reading the individual contributions to a recently published assessment of its performance will soon discover. The long drawn-out Labour leadership contest – and the fact that no-one listens to you anyway when you first lose office – ensured that Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, were successfully able to pin the blame for the deficit on Labour’s supposed profligacy in government.
Meanwhile, although it may have bombed badly as a soundbite, the big society (the idea that the third sector, social entrepreneurs and contracted commercial providers might provide better targeted welfare solutions than a state system which has entrenched dependency) has been carried forward into public policy: parent-led ‘free schools’ will open soon; big firms (although not without some controversy) are providing employability testing and training; new benefits rules are making it harder for those at the bottom to rely on hand-outs rather than their own initiative. True, there are considerable caveats – it is hard to understand how local authority cuts in funding to charities and voluntary groups can be squared with the great expectations placed upon them by Tory ministers – but no-one can say they aren’t trying.
On questions which some regard as moral issues, others as life-choices (and still others as simply a matter of common humanity) the Conservative leadership has also conformed to type. Expressions of support for, say, stable family relationships and for Christians supposedly battling ‘militant secularism’ have not entirely ruled out the possibility of the government legislating for gay marriage. Even as it has attempted (not altogether successfully, it has to be said) to reduce immigration to ‘tens rather than hundreds of thousands’, the Tory leadership still appears committed to an anti-discrimination regime that some of its followers almost certainly see as ‘political correctness gone mad.’ That said, the shoe is certainly pinching on human rights legislation which has allowed non-elected courts, citing the European Convention, effectively to override both the will of voters and the nation’s security and sovereignty.
When it comes to the latter, the picture is a more mixed one. It is possible to argue that a Conservative-led government determined to move away from Blair’s messianic liberal interventionism would not have taken the stand (and, indeed, the lead) it took on Libya. On the other hand, it has shown no sign so far of any desire to move on to Syria in the same way that Blair moved on from Afghanistan to Iraq. Given there is no moral difference between the actual destruction visited on Homs by Assad and the potentially similar threat posed to the civilian population of Benghazi by Gaddafi, then Cameron’s motives for taking military action to prevent the latter but not the former must have more to do with raison d'état than simply doing the right thing. Closer to home, however, the polarities seem to have been reversed. Unless one believes that supposedly (but only supposedly) saving the City of London from increased European regulation overrides the UK’s national interest in not alienating 25 out of 27 of its fellow member states, then Cameron’s refusal to sanction the EU’s controversial Fiscal Compact is surely driven by ideological Euroscepticism – or at the very least his need to placate those Tory MPs for whom bashing Brussels is not so much a reflex response as an all-consuming obsession.
All of the above chimes with the definition offered by Clark and Hunt, even if their task wasn’t so much to analyse their party’s power-play as to tweak the tail of the centre left by appropriating one of the terms that has come to replace socialism in its lexicon. But they went even further: progressive conservatism, according to Clark and Hunt, was not only ‘oriented towards the future rather than to yearning for the past’ but was about confronting – indeed, had always been about confronting - vested interests.
To some, such chutzpah will prompt little more than hollow laughter. If the Tories are, as Clark and Hunt promised, now taking on ‘today's real ruling elite’ (by which they meant ‘public sector appointees, private sector contractors, media moguls and various go-betweens in the PR and lobbying industries’), then most reckon they are only doing so because their previous involvement with such people has been so embarrassingly exposed.
Yet it is perfectly possible to argue that the Conservatives in government are, indeed, attacking and undermining vested interests. One reason (although by no means the only one) that the coalition’s NHS reforms have run into such trouble is that they threaten to disrupt established hierarchies and entrenched ways of doing things. Similarly, plans to reform public sector pensions have provoked the ire of trade unions supposedly more interested (and how dare they be!) in looking after their members than helping to balance the nation’s books.
On the other hand, it is noticeable that the vested interests the Conservatives seem keenest to take on – at least when it comes to action rather than rhetoric – are in the public rather than the private sector and in the labour movement rather than in the corporate world. This would seem to go against both common sense understandings of the term progressive and the ideas of the American political movement to which it gave name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That movement, after all, was about using the power of the democratic state not just to clean up corruption and slim the civil service but also to put capitalist robber-barons – the people we now call the super-rich – firmly in their place. No longer would they be allowed to appeal to traditions of limited government to justify the exploitation of ordinary working people, environmental degradation and business practices which made the mockery of free market ideals they themselves were so fond of trumpeting.
That said, the Conservatives in government can claim – and again not without some justification – that they are pursuing progressive policies on welfare by pointing to the way they are busy removing benefits from Britain’s middle-classes. It is, after all, the acme of a progressive regime that the rich pay more than the poor for the same state-provided services. Unlike, say, shifts from direct to indirect taxation, cutting back on state subsidies that go to the relatively well-off is not inherently regressive – at least in the short term. In the long term, however, the result of, say, removing Child Benefit from the well-heeled, and making them contribute more to a higher education sector which disproportionately benefits them and their offspring, may be to erode the support for the universal welfare state.
For Tories, this is mouth-watering political prospect. Eventually, as social democrats in Scandinavia have long argued, reduction in the extent to which the sharp-elbowed middle classes buy into and use publicly-funded services is almost bound to lead to a reduction in the help provided by society to the poor, the incapacitated and the simply unlucky. If that is what is meant by progressive, however, then we really have travelled through the looking glass.
This is the first contribution to a new Policy Network observatory series on "Progressive" conservatism in Europe
Tim Bale is currently Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron. His new book, The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change will be published by Oxford University Press in September – the same month he will be joining the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London