Coffee House

Why liberal conservatism isn’t dead

20 February 2013

12:00 PM

20 February 2013

12:00 PM

David Cameron led the Conservatives out of the political wilderness by pursuing the modernisation of the Tory brand, which had become associated with reactionary social attitudes and a dog eat dog economy.

In today’s tricky economic climate, the Tories need to focus on challenging perceptions that they are the ‘party of the rich’, offering policies that ease the cost of living and improve public services for those on low- to middle-incomes.

But this urgent task does not quell the need to continue the unfinished social modernisation of the Conservative Party, most often associated with Cameron’s early premiership: namely, modernising the party’s stance on gay rights, climate change, wellbeing, poverty and international development, so Tories are seen to be representative of and addressing current concerns and attitudes.

This is the justification for pursuing the ‘liberal conservatism’ that Cameron touted in sunnier, pre-recession days. But this agenda is now coming under attack, with critics arguing that liberal conservatism’s concerns jar with and distract from today’s glum economic conditions. Others argue it is worse: mere cross-dressing, see-through and devoid of principle.

This is unfair and these grievances need challenging. Liberal Conservatism is much more than political game-playing, fit for only one moment in time. Instead, it is a unique and compelling worldview, which draws on the best Conservative traditions, providing the intellectual foundations for the mind-set of the modern, liberal Conservative.


First, liberal Conservatism is positive about human nature. It rejects ugly and cynical assumptions of the political left: namely, that people’s lives are entirely determined by factors out of their control – such as genes or inequality – and that people are tainted by money-making, and thus state regulation – and more extremely, state ownership – of businesses is needed.

Here the libertarian side of the liberal Conservative emerges. No, people can change their circumstances, lift themselves out of poverty, with the right determination and support – from family, school and, yes, sometimes government.  Of course poverty and inequality are influential on life chances: but there is always hope. To strip people of this, to be fatalistic about their life trajectory, is dystopian.

Likewise, liberal Conservatives believe people are fundamentally good, even when they’re making money. More good will come from letting people pursue their own course, and even their own fortune, than trying to regulate behaviour and clamp down on capitalism. This is why the modern Conservative Party is so keen on decentralisation: set professionals in our schools and hospitals free, rather than hampering them with rules and targets, and those public services will innovate and flourish.

Profiteering need not come at the expense of social mindedness: this binary, regurgitated by the political left, is rejected by liberal Conservatives. This is why we are relaxed about the role of the for-profit sector in the delivery of public services. And it is why liberal Conservatives such as Francis Maude and Nick Hurd have led the way in promoting and catalysing the nascent social investment market, where investors can get a return from financing successful social interventions.  Here we are unearthing the second insight of liberal Conservatism: people are malleable, they have multiple preferences, sometimes at the same time, sometimes changing over a long period. Best to recognise and respect this, give it space, rather than thwart particular impulses.

Liberal Conservatives also cast off a fetish of social Conservatives: that a golden age has gone, and the modern world – apparently sexualised and atomised – is poorer than the past. The evidence suggests otherwise. From Francis Fukuyama to Steve Pinker, academics have shown that modern-day liberal democracies score much better on a range of outcomes: life expectancy, war, disease, health, education and standards of living. Technology and education, science and reason, are guiding us to a better future.  The third premise for liberal Conservatives, then, is that the future will be better than the past.

The fourth, stemming from our Burkean roots, is scepticism. We do not know what the scientific advances of the future will be; there is still so much we do not know. Equally, though the past is no panacea, we should be respectful of it – its institutions and practices. We need to be modest about the extent of our knowledge: question definitive dogmatism. Social and economic changes, too often conjured by ideologues who hog the apparatus of the state, need to be observed and implemented carefully. Liberal Conservatives resist hasty law-making, preferring ‘nudges’ and relying on other actors – businesses, communities and individuals – to really lead the way. Government is best when it responds to societal changes, not tries and steers it.

The limitations of our knowledge means we have to be respectful, but not relativistic, of cultural difference between communities. Maria Miller’s same-sex marriage bill typifies the liberal Conservative approach.  It enables those in homosexual relationships to marry if they so wish at the same time as enabling religious institutions and people to disagree. This is very liberal, by respecting difference; but, more fundamentally, it’s Conservative because it appreciates the importance of relationships to human flourishing. Here is the fifth insight of liberal Conservatism: family and community matters, and communities and families are different. This is why modern Conservatives put family and the Big Society at the heart of their politics: whether it is helping families with children, supporting marriage or encouraging volunteering.

Liberalism gives space for different attitudes and practices, for exploration and innovation: but it can be un-gratifyingly individualistic. It pushes and pushes for liberation and rights: real freedom has been won for many, but eventually, what next? Until there is love and dedication for others, there is loneliness. There is nothing more joyous than love: and the feeling of duty and sacrifice that comes with it. Liberalism and libertarianism, material success, are not enough. The final tenet of liberal Conservatism is a world which is more than materialistic, as important as it is: spirituality, well-being and love matter too. So modern Conservatives have led the way in introducing a national survey measuring General Well-Being, for example.

Liberal Conservatism is not simply political triangulation. It is a philosophy, drawing on rich Conservative traditions. It is trusting and hopeful of people and the future, while being mindful of history, cultural tradition and human changeability. It is humble and tolerant, and believes that people truly thrive in relationships, beyond – but not separate from – the individualistic and materialistic paradigm.

Ryan Shorthouse is director of Bright Blue.

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Show comments
  • retundario

    Your world-view is anything but “unique” and “compelling” – in fact reads exactly like the kind of soppy and pathetic rubbish you’d expect to hear on Question Time. Hackneyed and boring, I’d call it.

  • Man in a Shed

    “… associated with reactionary social attitudes and a dog eat dog economy.” – the language of the aggressive rewriting of history of the left. The problem is not that this analysis is correct, but that conservatives stopped trying to win the argument. Little rich boys saw their moment in the sun being more important than the good of the people or our country.

    Maria Miller’s betrayal of our society in kicking out the corner stone of family organisation – is little more than an example of Stalin’s useful idiots at play. Soon the real left will be back in power and will stab all the harder at the heart of our country.

    The truth is the Conservative party has been subverted and its supporters betrayed. Freedom cannot coexist with toleration legislation like the Equality Act and the ending of the recognition of real marriage by Cameron. Lets just be honest and stop all this guff – its fooling no one and it demeans those who try to pass it off.

    • Colonel Mustard

      I wish you posted comments here more often.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Once again for what I can see is no good reason a lengthy post has disapeared into the vacuum of this sites spam filter. I’m starting to think that the Spectator has given up the concept of freedom of speech in order to protect the precious egos of its crass contributors!

    As for this article well its clear the Governments supporters are already hitting the denial/ delusion phase of their fall. A truly absurd and vacuous article!

  • andagain

    This is why the modern Conservative Party is so keen on decentralisation: set professionals in our schools and hospitals free, rather than hampering them with rules and targets, and those public services will innovate and flourish.

    I thought they were keen on reforming those institutions because the vested interests within them all supported Labour?

    • Robert_Eve

      That’s another very good reason.

      • andagain

        It is a reason that dominates every other reason: there is no plausible way of persuading people that the changes imposed on the health and education sectors by the Conservative Party have any noble purpose whatsoever.

  • paulus

    You need to go and place your head between an open door and the door frame and hit yourself very hard…he led the conservatives out of the wilderness!!! are you forgetting the fact the British economy collapsed under the Labour Government. The same govenment that let rip with the money supply over thirteen years. When everyone in the country had credit poured down their throat. No opposition could have beaten them.

    • Tom Tom

      Money Supply ? You jest…..have you seen M4 lately ? Do you know what collapsing M4 lending heralds ?

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Ryan Shorthouse, you are a humbug.

    It is going to be gratifying to watch you Cameroons get obliterated. Your day of reckoning is going to arrive in about 26 months, lad. You’ll get a foretaste in 2014, and a small one later this month, but it’s May 2015 when the electorate deals with you and the other humbugs.

    In about 700 days, lad, and those days will pass far faster than you can possibly imagine. The final 200 or so will be a panic stricken terror for you, because you humbugs will finally see then what the rest already see today.

    For conservatives, including the liberal-conservative strain that you humbugs are attempting to crossdress as, it will be a grim time. It’s work that must be done, but is not the preferred course. Nonetheless, it will be done, and you Cameroon humbugs will be obliterated.

    • Chris Morriss

      Who is this Rainy Shortarse chap, and why has he been parachuted in here to write this drivel?

  • Dominic Adler

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (pause for breath) ha ha ha ha ha…

  • In2minds

    So under Cameron we rid ourselves of silly planning regulations and the
    right to light and then can kiss farewell to the “dog eat dog
    economy”? That’s so clever!

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Truly liberal Conservatives would have been happy with people living however they wanted, not seeking to give state sanction to one group whilst overriding the objections of another. Liberal Conservatives have created division where there was previously broad harmony and consensus.
    Good luck with your General Well-Being survey and other nanny-state bull for ‘beyond the individualistic and materialistic paradigm’. Whilst talking about love, your narcissist, humanist religion is the very opposite of the giving love taught by Christ, rightly opposed by anybody who is actually a conservative.

    • telemachus

      Indeed opposed by anyone of reason right or left
      From the doctrine of brotherly love whether in Christianity or Islam we understand that the role of Government is to provide the environment for personal and societal economic well being while allowing the social issues to emerge by consensus

  • Tom Tom

    “dog eat dog economy” Apparently we don’t have one of those

  • @PhilKean1

    “Cameron led the Conservatives out of the political wilderness”

    Who writes this stuff ? Here are the facts in plain English, just for you.

    Cameron LOST, yes, lost an election in 2010 against the then most hated Government and PM in living memory.
    Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Cameron’s Party were untrusted by an electorate who were ready for a clear alternative to Labour’s 13 years of corrupt maladministration.

    Hey, here’s another one. Have you never heard of the axiom that – “Governments LOSE elections, Oppositions do NOT win them”?
    Well, never has a party been more deserving of losing, and never has an electorate so wanted to punish them, than Labour were in 2010.
    Labour did EVERYTHING required to lose that election, short of eating babies and banning alcohol.

    And you say that Cameron led the Conservatives out of the wilderness?
    Guess what? Staying as leader of his party guarantees that they will lose the 2015 election.

    • Tom Tom

      Cameron was Gordon Brown’s secret weapon and allowed Brown to claw back seats from certain oblivion

      • @PhilKean1

        And he nearly did it.

        But what we subsequently learned from Labour’s failed negotiation with the Liberals should scare the pants of all decent taxpayers.

        I have heard that PR was offered to the Liberals, by Labour, if they could find a way to form a Coalition.
        That means that ANYTHING is on offer if Cameron manages to close the poll gap and deny Miliband a majority in 2015. And let us remember that 2nd is the very best Cameron will be able to achieve.

        So, what other pieces of silver might Labour offer the Liberals?

        * Nuclear disarmament?
        * Surrender Britain’s UN seat and give it to the EU?
        * Join EU monetary and political Union?
        * PR?
        * So-called, wealth taxes?
        * Join an EU armed forces?
        * Agree to an EU-wide police force, with foreign police patrolling UK streets?
        * A 60% top tax rate?
        * Unlimited EU and non-EU immigration?
        * Requiring all British men to wear their underwear on the outside of their trousers?

        Who knows WHAT what the Liberals will demand as a price for their support?

    • andagain

      I don’t think I have ever seen a poll which showed that the Conservative Party was more popular than David Cameron.

      It rather reminds me of Tony Blair. Labour were determined to replace him because they could not admit that they were less popular than he was.

      • Mycroft

        Well said, the Conservatives would have done considerably worse at the last election without Cameron, and the facile comments about his ‘failure’ fail to take account of the fact that the gain in seats was the largest in any election since 1931. The fact is that it is unusually difficult for the Conservatives to gain a majority now because (a) the party has been virtually eliminated from Scotland (as a result of the last dose of right wing ideological ‘Conservatism’ which so many of Cameron’s critics seem to want to return to), and (b) the bias against it as a result of the constituency divisions.

        • Tom Tom

          1931 election was for Ramsay MacDonald as PM

  • Old Fox

    The weasel word here is “liberal”. There are at least two liberalisms around and David Cameron has chosen to hitch his conservatism to the wrong one. The sort of liberalism he should have embraced is Mrs Thatcher’s – your “dog eat dog” economy – it’s called competition and it serves the customer well. It was not “reactionary” – a Marxist term, which insulates anything that the left defines as “contemporary” or “modern” against reasoned criticism – it was suspicious of fads and unnecessary reforms. What, precisely, is necessary about homosexual “marriage”? It cannot conduce to fruitfulness, the propagation of the species, since homosexual acts are sterile. It is unlikely to conduce to fidelity, since this has not been part of homosexual culture or behaviour for many years. Is there any evidence, beyond the anecdotal – to say that it is now? It cannot form the basis of a happy family life, since it rules out the presence in such a life of a fully male or female role model and grotesquely underestimates the irreplaceable importance of the genuine female as a mother. Worst of all, it furthers the industrialisation of sexuality, making babies from test tubes as a form of luxury item for those who cannot have them naturally or – with the best will in the world – bring them up happily. It is partly the liberalism, then, of our craven, calculating, petty, spiteful, rump “liberal” party, floating opportunistically on the perfumed tides of metropolitan opinion. Beyond that it is the false liberalism of the left which has as its agenda micro-management of society in the name of “equality”. Proper liberalism – the liberalism of Burke – whose name you invoke with all the nauseating false piety with which Blair invokes Christ – would never try to wrench marriage from its proper function in the name of so inapplicable an ideal. By all means liberate sexual and private life, but do not further this pretence that all choices can be accommodated without sacrifice, for it will have victims. Look to hear from them in about twenty years’ time and prepare for a terrible repentance.

    • telemachus

      I have never read such interpretative balderdash

      • Colonel Mustard

        Since you habitually write interpretative balderdash I seriously doubt that.

        • telemachus

          Let us examine the thesis of the thread on Liberal Conservativism with the aid of the Mail
          “David Cameron declared himself a ‘Liberal Conservative’ and boasted of running a ‘progressive alliance’ yesterday as it emerged that he has recruited prominent Labour figures to advise his coalition.

          The Prime Minister took a leaf from Tony Blair’s ‘big tent’ approach by signing up Labour MP Frank Field and left-wing intellectual Will Hutton.

          Mr Field, a former welfare minister, has been sounded out about advising the Government on how to tackle poverty”
          Where does he turn to bolster credentials that will soften the still Tebbitite heart of the party?
          Why to the party of reason
          We crave the real thing

          • Colonel Mustard

            They are far from being the “party of reason”. They are a cynical, manipulative and semi-criminal gang of self-serving chancers who have dragged this country down on many an occasion and will do so again if given the chance.

    • telemachus

      To continue
      Homosexual marriage is nothing to do with left right or liberal
      What we are dealing with is a hedonistic society which does not wish to follow divine will or natural law
      Coupled with a weak Tory leader who wants to pander to an estranged electorate

  • Archimedes

    “Maria Miller’s same-sex marriage bill typifies the liberal Conservative approach.”

    Let’s be clear, the marriage bill was where one group of people were complaining that another group of people weren’t being nice to them, and wanted the government to solve the problem. It was a nanny-state agenda.

    That said, it is certainly true that it will prove to have given the Conservatives the jolt required to shake them out of their ideology, but it would be foolish to imagine that liberal conservatism will be the victor. What you can be sure of is that economic libertarianism will be the loser, because the new group that the Conservatives will have to appeal to will demand it.

    • telemachus

      It did not jolt them from
      It drove the heart of the part further in

    • Tom Tom……………..He has been a researcher for Rt Hon David Willetts MP, where he authored
      the Conservative Party’s Childhood Review, and an adviser to Rt Hon
      Maria Miller MP when she was the Shadow Minister for the Family,……………..……………..
      The Rt Hon David Willetts MP……….

  • telemachus

    Except they have not ditched reactionary social attitudes
    The gay marriage debacle said it all
    It emphasised and underlined that the Tory party bolstered by its DT mouthpiece remained reactionary
    As we get nearer the election we will see more of the return of the nasty party

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Agreed with nasty, vile and dishonest people like Ed Balls, Labour certainly is a very nasty party.

      • telemachus

        Some people create a few antibodies because they are effective and feared

    • Colonel Mustard

      As Old Fox correctly notes below – “reactionary” – a Marxist term, which insulates anything that the left defines as “contemporary” or “modern” against reasoned criticism”.

      • telemachus

        I cannot see a point but it stimulated me to read the difficult material to which you allude

        • Colonel Mustard

          You are incapable of seeing anyone else’s point much less making any valid points of your own. All you do is regurgitate warmed-up Labour slop, thread after thread, with a bit of soviet romanticism and Stalin apology thrown in. As others have mentioned it is difficult to know whether you are simple minded and believe any of it or are just trying to be as disruptive as possible.

          • huktra

            When do you imagine we will be rid of these?