Sunday, December 16, 2007

Progressive Conservatism

The Tory Tradition

As we expect from its name, the Conservative Party has traditionally attempted to block or place a brake upon radical change. This has been the case whether it was faced with democratic reforms, welfare improvements, the disbanding of the Empire, the post-war shift to a mixed economy or income re-distribution.

For the purposes of survival, it has nevertheless at times come to accept significant changes. The franchise reforms of 1832 were accepted by Robert Peel two years afterwards as a "final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question". Benjamin Disraeli came up with a more compassionate form of "One Nation Conservatism" in 1845. Then Harold Macmillan accepted moves to African independence in his "winds of change" speech in 1960.

Edmund Burke, a 18th Century thinker whom Conservatives at one time deferred to, also pointed out that all proposals for reform could not be dismissed for a "State without the means of change is without the means of conservation". The trick was to only allow those changes which would safeguard the continuing operations of the existing political, economic and social structure.

Revolutionary Conservatism

Then there are the times when Conservatism itself is radicalised because it wishes to reign in or trump radical changes which it feels has got out of hand.

So when I once argued in a Commons Committee that the Poll Tax was such a measure and it had made Margaret Thatcher the most revolutionary political leader in this country since Oliver Cromwell, the Conservatives present cheered. The tradition from Burke to MacMillan had bitten the dust.

Post-Modern Conservatism

But what are we to make of claims that David Cameron is de-constructing Conservatism and moving his Party into the opposing camp of the Progressives? And that he now has a programme to establish a "new progressive alliance" with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens?

What can this all mean? Conservatism is a very simple concept. But the term "progressive" covers a multitude of vices and virtues. Just what is it that we are being asked to progress towards and at what speed?

For all that the word "progressive" tells us is that the proposals it refers to are considered to be good and differ from conservation.

Varieties For Progress

So as I am a Democratic Socialist, what I see as progress are moves to social equality, democratic participation, co-operation and classlessness. But when Tony Blair expanded upon the progressive nature of New Labour he always criticised the type of things I believe in as being outdated and thereby conservative. He talked about the need for progressive politics a great deal. For him it was a modern version of the old Lloyd George mixture of free-market economics mellowed by acts of social justice. Gordon Brown hasn't come up with anything different, even if he did write a book about Jimmy Maxton.

What others see as progressive will be dominated by nationalism, globalism, a balanced eco-system, the ending of word poverty (by a variety of nostrums), feminism, Islam or what you will.

So by itself being tagged a progressive tells us much less than being tagged a conservative.

Progress To What?

What is Cameron wanting us to progress towards? Two Conservative MPs tell us that "for New Labour the progressive force is the State: for Cameron's Conservatives it is Society". How then will Society be enabled and encouraged to act? Will the State be used to set the ball rolling? Will charity replace State provisions? Or is it all just a more decentralised version of New Labourism?

If Cameron, Brown and Clegg-Huhne all see themselves as progressives, then are they all basically in the same camp or do they stand for distinctive brands of progress? If so what are they?

Let Us Put An End To Conceptual Confusion

Clarity over how differing people are using the word "progress" would help. Yet I suspect that it is being used as a substitute for ideas and that it would be far better to talk about politics in understandable terms such as "democracy", "socialism", and "egalitarianism"; or in concepts which openly clash with these - there are plenty of them around

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