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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.

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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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