The argument runs as follows. The orthodox political philosophy in the West is liberalism. The basic liberal idea is that we are made human by our capacity to choose who we are and what we do through our own individual will and reason. However, this philosophy leaves us as atomised individuals each pursuing our own individual desires. So liberals have to provide some account of how a society made up of millions of such self-seeking individuals can hold together.
There have been many answers. Some philosophers, for instance, have argued that people are naturally good, so that if you take away distorting social constraints, the result will be a more harmonious society.
But the two most influential answers are those belonging to the left and right wing of politics. The classical (right-wing) liberals believed that society could be successfully regulated by the hidden hand of the free market. Even if people acted selfishly for their own profit, the free market would maintain a balance for the progress of society as a whole.
The “new liberals” (left-liberals), however, rejected the market solution. They believed that a society could be regulated in a more deliberately rational way by the state. Beatrice Webb explained this new approach clearly in 1928, when discussing the politics of herself and her husband, Sidney, compared to their recently deceased friend R.B. Haldane:
What bound us together was our common faith in a deliberately organised society – our belief in the application of science to human relations, with a view of betterment. Where we clashed was that he believed more than we did in the existing governing class … whilst we held by the common people, served by an elite of unassuming experts, who would appear no different in status from the common men.
So the clash of politics over the last one hundred years has not been about political fundamentals, but about different solutions to the liberal problem of “regulating individual wills”.
The so-called conservative parties, in reality right-liberal parties, have generally stood for an economic view of man, and a desire to maintain a free market (for instance, through economic deregulation and privatisation). In theory, the right-liberal parties have wanted to limit the role of the state, and so have been more sympathetic to the role of “civil” institutions like the family in providing “services”.
All of which brings us to the new leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron. He has been in the news since his ascent to the leadership because of his claim to be creating a “compassionate conservatism”.
The first thing to note about Cameron’s policy speeches is that he is happy to describe his politics, and that of his party, as being liberal. For instance, he has called for the creation of “a modern, progressive, liberal, mainstream opposition to Labour”. He has also said that “today we have a Conservative Party … which wants Britain to be a positive participant in the EU, as a champion of liberal values”.
Cameron, in describing his party as a “champion of liberal values”, is simply confirming its longstanding role as a right liberal party. He keeps to this tradition when he further declares that his party “supports open markets”; is “committed to decentralisation and localism”; and wants to strengthen “our economy by freeing the creators of wealth, especially small businesses, to create the jobs and prosperity we need.”
However, there is no doubt that Cameron has made some shifts leftward in his party’s policies. For instance, both the left and right wing parties generally support feminism, because both accept the view that we should not be “limited” in our choices by something we are born into, such as our sex. Neither the left nor the right wants to accept that gender might influence our life choices, so both assume that any disparity in the representation of the sexes must be caused by an oppressive discrimination.
So on fundamentals the left and right are united on feminist issues. However, it’s been more typical of the left to want to impose quotas to enforce “equality”. The right generally shies away from formal quotas because what’s more important in a market setting is equality of opportunity rather than outcome.
It’s significant, therefore, that Cameron has stated that his party “would aim to select women candidates for at least half the 140 target seats at the next election”. This is more in the style of left-liberal quotas, rather than a typical right-liberalism.
Cameron has also adapted to the left-liberal style in his emphasis on social justice and quality of life. The right liberal parties have typically viewed man primarily in his economic aspect, because they view the market as the mechanism by which human freedom is expressed.
Left-liberals usually don’t see life in such narrowly economic terms, with some even prepared to champion the idea of economic “downshifting”.
That Cameron wishes to reposition his party in this area is clear, not only from the fact that he has established social justice and quality of life policy groups, but also from his statements on the environment, such as the following:
“too often, we’ve allowed the impression to develop that we Conservatives are supporters of economic growth at all costs … The impression that we put the needs of big business before the future of the planet … Well as someone who regularly uses both four wheels and two … and who believes in wealth creation but also that business has vital social and environmental responsibilities ... I say … join me in my mission to put green politics at the top of the national and international agenda.”
Finally, right-liberal parties have generally sought to win office by appealing to genuinely conservative rank and file voters. Cameron has moved decisively against this usual right-wing policy, and has made it clear he is aiming for the left-wing vote, even at the cost of alienating conservatives.
This is most obvious in his willingness to put down white men, such as when he declared that “We will reflect the country we aspire to govern, and the sound of modern Britain is a complex harmony, not a male voice choir”.
Similarly, his decision to drop the worker registration scheme, which controls the number of immigrants from former Eastern Bloc countries, shows a readiness to ignore the preferences of rank and file conservatives.
Will Cameron’s leftward move work? This I don’t claim to know. But one thing it will do is to open up a space in British politics. If Cameron is no longer making an appeal to rank and file conservatives, then there is room for some other party to do so. Perhaps there will be a chance for a more genuinely conservative party to emerge in Britain.