I’ll admit that I’ve always sort of liked David Cameron. I’m a realist about politics and hope that when my side eventually loses, the other side has some decent people governing. Canada’s a great example of this – despite Liberal party rule for a long time suggesting that Canada is a fundamentally centre-left nation, a funding scandal saw the Liberals booted out and Stephen Harper, a talented politician but unreconstructed righty take power.
The problem has always been that Cameron’s Tories have been woefully thin on policy, causing people to be suspicious. Also, understandably the whole Eton/Bullingdon thing doesn’t go down well with a lot of people.
So I was interested to see that Cameron has given a speech on ‘Progressive Conservatism’. What does it mean though? Is it just semantic nonsense, influenced by the venue of his speech, or is there some real cause for hope? Lets try and figure it out.
The 4 Progressive Principles
In these, Cameron identifies his outline for a good society. 1) Fairness 2) Equality of Opportunity 3) Greenness and 4) Safety.
I can go along with that. Safety obviously plays to the base but its not something liberals can ignore. Fixing the criminal justice system and keeping us safe from terrorism is something everyone should be for.
I’ll compare these principles to what they looked like under Michael Howard, William Hague or in a parallel universe, David Davis. 1) Cutting spending and lowering taxes no matter what 2) Reducing political correctness about immigrants 3) Withdrawing from the EU on ideological grounds and 4) Cleaning hospitals.
Emphasis matters. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the difference between political sides is about emphasis. Some people emphasise the threat terrorists pose, whereas others emphasise the threat to civil liberties.
Conservative Solutions to achieve these outcomes
Here again, things are much better than they would have been a few years ago. Cameron sets his stall out on decentralisation which is interesting. It would be interesting to see whether this involves charter schools which progressives can get behind or vouchers which aren’t so great. Also, will decentralisation mean less, equal or more amounts of funding? Regardless, these are genuine policy disagreements and it would be interesting to see how some of them work in practise.
I’m a centre-lefty and am quite happy with strong government involvement in the economy, personal tax rates at 50% and a strong commitment to government programs and policies which promote a more egalitarian economy. Like Matt Yglesias, I also agree that sometimes government involvement is counter-productive and am inclined to question why libertarians can’t accept that a lot of the time the opposite is true and government programs work.
At the same, Noah Millman makes a strong case that liberals should at the very least keep the principled libertarian argument for smaller government in mind.
I think Cameron is staking himself as a smart libertarian, just as Obama has talked of smart government rather than big or small government. The difference of course is in the emphasis. As a lefty, Obama is more trusting of ‘big’ government and willing to make it work. On the other hand, for obvious political and principled reasons Cameron is emphasising decentralisation and reducing the size of the central government.
Unlike the Bush years or with the Old Tories, I’ll be comfortable if this is the level of debate we’re getting.
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