Untangling Cameron’s ‘Progressive Conservatism’


by Shariq
29th January, 2009 at 8:00 pm    

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.

Conclusion

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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  1. Rumbold — on 29th January, 2009 at 8:15 pm  

    One of the main problems I have with David Cameron is that he is a socialist. For me, a socialist is anyone who doesn’t take a sceptical view of government intervention. Now, that doesn’t mean that all government activity is bad (such as providing shelters for women etc.), merely that one’s default position should be to question whether or not the government actually needs to intervene in this area. The state should have to prove that the market/individuals cannot function as well as them. David Cameron has shown no signs of understanding this basic principle of freedom, which is why if I ever vote for him, it will only be because (a) The Libertarian party does not have a candidate in my constituency and (b) there is a real chance of unseating a Labour MP.

    He is also far too pro-EU for my liking. I wish the Conservative party could find someone who was actually a classic liberal: socially liberal, Eurosceptic and in favour of small government and lower taxes.

  2. persephone — on 29th January, 2009 at 9:59 pm  

    “The state should have to prove that the market/ individuals cannot function as well as them”

    When the tories were in power in the 1990′s they made govt depts go through market testing. The govt depts had to prove that their function be kept in-house not out-sourced. Similar to submitting a tender. Is that what you want repeated Rumbold?

  3. MaidMarian — on 29th January, 2009 at 10:31 pm  

    First thing to say – ignore localism. Thatcher was big on localism right upto the point that the voters voted Livingstone into the GLC. Every government is big on localism till the press has a hissy fit. It will never change.

    Saying that, you are missing the big word here.

    ‘In these, Cameron identifies his outline for a good society. 1) Fairness 2) Equality of Opportunity 3) Greenness and 4) Safety.’ Well, yes…that’s Blairism isn’t it, more or less.

    These are all well and good till events take over. Not a fashionable view I know but to my mind, Blair was a good man. The years 1997-1999 were probably the most progressive government I will ever see in my life. Blair’s fall was caused fundamentally by global events and the lose-lose they presented him with.

    What would Cameron do about Iraq – his voting record gives some clues? What about Afghanistan? What about the lose-loses that governments inevitable have to face.

    The problem with Cameron’s thought is the same problem with Blair’s – you can not be all things to all people – it’s picking the right fights. Cameron, like all politicians will annoy all in some way eventually.

    The consensus is the politics of rationality – logical if not helpful.

    What I’d like to see is the really tough issues taken on. Blair came close to this in 1997-1999, but ducked. Here is one bull to be taken by the horns – pointing out that pensions were not meant to be thirty years living high on the hog and that the retirement age has to increase.

    When Cameron takes on an issue like that, I’ll listen. Until then, a Thatcher for the post-Blair era doesn’t really cut it form me.

  4. persephone — on 29th January, 2009 at 10:52 pm  

    Whenever I hear politicians speak about decentralisation I see it as Govt speak for what is called empowerment elsewhere.

    Those who are decentralised sometimes have had little exposure to their own decision making. If, the ‘mother ship’ of central government equips those decentralised with the skills to be effectively self managing it would work.

    But how ‘progressive’ is this? Did not the early quangos and others called executive agencies attempt this strategy?

  5. MaidMarian — on 29th January, 2009 at 10:59 pm  

    Persephone – Yes sort of.

    Decentralisation works on the explicit assumption that with decentralised authority follows accountability. This is an egregious falsehood and, being fair, it is not always the government’s fault.

    The truth is that the minister all too often carries the can for decisions made elsewhere. Think about local campaigns for NHS drugs available in one area, but not in another. The pressure is not on local figures, but on ministers to overrule the local decision-maker.

    Take another example. Suppose that government decided to pursue a policy of credit unions to replace big banks. If Northern Rock-style queues formed at a credit union, the minister would be forced to intervene – there is no doubt in my mind.

    The stark reality is that all too often we talk a good local game, but readily scream that, ‘something must be done.’

    It’s progressive when it works. The moment something, anything goes wrong, and a political point can be scores decentralisation fails.

    It’s about mindset. Cameron knows full well that there is no mindset for decentralisation and he knows he is making a rod for his own back. That’s why we will see no more than decentralising gestures under a Cameron government.

  6. Billy — on 29th January, 2009 at 11:01 pm  

    David Cameron’s a socialist now? Hmm…

  7. Shariq — on 29th January, 2009 at 11:04 pm  

    “One of the main problems I have with David Cameron is that he is a socialist. For me, a socialist is anyone who doesn’t take a sceptical view of government intervention.”

    Rumbold, congratulations on the definition of who isn’t a libertarian instead of who is a socialist. You’re much smarter than that.

    People who live in Scandinavia are really living in despotic countries – what with there early education provision, extensive childcare and paternity leave, high levels of productivity and universal health care.

    Read the yglesias and millman posts i’ve linked to.

  8. Shariq — on 29th January, 2009 at 11:08 pm  

    MM, good points about decentrelisation. I think Clinton and Blair both had good points but were ultimately still working in the shadows of Reagan and Thatcher. I.e not confident enough of power to be as progressive as they could have been. Or in the case of Hillarycare not knowing how to get policy implemented.

  9. Sunny — on 30th January, 2009 at 12:41 am  

    Heh, the libertarians think anyone who isn’t as anti-govt as them is a socialist.

    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.

    Emphasis matters of course, but it can also obfuscate hidden agendas.

    So David C could talk about green policies and all the rest but his favoured home secretary was David Davis remember (though good on civil liberties, crap on everything else).

    The problem itself is that Cameron is all emphasis and little on fleshing out those ideas into practice. Even their economics has been appalling of late – not really translating into anything approaching a position that might tell us what they would have done.

  10. John Lofton, Recovering Republican — on 30th January, 2009 at 4:45 am  

    Forget “conservatism,” please. It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    “[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican
    JLof@aol.com

  11. Rumbold — on 30th January, 2009 at 9:56 am  

    Shariq, Billy and Sunny:

    Actually, I do regard most people as tainted with a form of socialism. Not to say that one cannot have a successful, high tax society, as Shariq points out, but in general I believe that the government needs to prove why they should be taking our money.

    Persephone:

    Actually, I do think that market-government co-operation often produces the worst results, as it renders the providers of a service unaacountable, while retaining typical government wastefulness. What I would like to see is core functions (such as defence) entirely controlled by the government, with everything else left to the state. Obviously there is debate about where you draw the line, but there does need to be a clear line.

  12. Shamit — on 30th January, 2009 at 1:01 pm  

    “I believe that the government needs to prove why they should be taking our money.”

    Rumbold,

    I think that case has been made and probably the best argument for it came from John Rawls with his concept of “veil of ignorance” — imagine if you were to set public policy before you were born and did not know where you would be born — how would you create societal and government structures.

    So we have to put money so that everyone gets the opporunity to get educated, receive healthcare and so forth.

    The argument should be about allocation and management of those resources so that they achieve the right results that serves the country best.

    That is why ideally politicians should not be judged on ideological purity or loyalty reserved only for certain accepted truth. The ability to blend ideals with pragmatism and achieve results should be the criteria.

  13. shariq — on 30th January, 2009 at 3:28 pm  

    Shamit, agree with your comment completely. I wonder if our differences are more generational than anything – given the legacy of Reagan/Thatcher, I can understand why you are more appreciative of Clinton/Blair.

  14. Sunny — on 30th January, 2009 at 3:36 pm  

    What Shamit said.

  15. Rumbold — on 30th January, 2009 at 5:17 pm  

    I agree that ideology should be tempered with pragmatism, but I don’t see Cameron’s starting ideology as acceptable.

    And Shamit, I am more than happy to accept that the state is the best provider in certain areas. What I resent is the “government creep” into many areas that are really none of their business.

  16. Shamit — on 30th January, 2009 at 5:32 pm  

    I share your resentment on government expanding itself into areas where it does not belong.

    Democracy and Liberty are often assumed to go hand in hand. That is not the case and far greater minds have explored arguing that democracy could end up being a tyranny of the majority. We can extrapolate that to the system and now we have a situation where politicians especially the Government tells us how we must give up our liberty to be democratic.

    The rights of the citizens’ vs the right of the Government and within the context of a globalised economic chaos– I think would be the debate that would shape our life and times.

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