Progressive Conservatism: some questions

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I have been asked by Demos to write a 500 word essay outlining any reservations I might have about the progressive Conservative project of Team Cameron. This is my first draft (the whole thing has to be in by close of play tomorrow). I have decided to take a broad view rather than focussing on specific policy issues.  As always I know I can rely on stimulating feedback and advice from my readers…..

“ The essence of the new progressivism lies in reconciling a recognition of the importance of social justice and cohesion to individual human autonomy and well-being (an idea associated with the centre left) with the view that social progress is best pursued through the voluntary actions of individuals and associations rather than the well intentioned, but often counter productive, interventions of the central state (an idea associated with the centre right).

I take this to be what is meant by ‘progressive ends through Conservative means’. But it is a difficult balancing act, especially in Government; aspiring to radical change but being circumspect in the use of the most concrete and immediate instruments of change available to ministers.

This is why the coherence of contemporary Conservative thought is of importance - not only to commentators and policy wonks. Under the pressure of office it would be all too easy for a Conservative administration to abandon its social ambitions and enthusiasm for localism and civic action, instead reverting to a Thatcherite ‘strong state, free market’ model of modernisation.

Passing over the glaring gap in Conservative thinking concerning the UK’s relations with the rest of the world, there are three areas in which we need greater clarity about the Cameron project.

First, Conservatives need to be clearer about the state of society as they see it. The exaggerated talk of ‘broken Britain’ may work with a section of our beleaguered print media but it serves to confuse rather than enlighten. A thoughtful analysis would recognise not only that as many aspects of society are getting better are as getting worse (which is obvious), but would appreciate that the changes we welcome are often linked to those we bemoan. Take these examples: greater home ownership tends to increase the social exclusion of those who cannot afford to buy; rising participation in higher education has been achieved, in part, by making it easier for more students to meet the requirements for entry (a process generally referred to by Conservatives as ‘dumbing down’). It may be possible, partially and over time, to solve these and other conundrums but only if we see them as real and recognise that at some level there will be trade-offs to be made.

Second, we need to understand how the Conservative state will work. While one group of Conservatives talks about the importance of devolving power and building capacity in communities, another group – focussed on the coming public spending challenge – suggests centralised and technocratic solutions to state inefficiency. There is much talk of the state fostering civic initiative, much less convincing is the account of how this is to be done; a particular challenge is those areas (for example suburban social housing estates) which lack a ready supply of talented social entrepreneurs.    

Third, how serious are the Conservatives about changing the way we do politics? This isn’t merely about new ways of configuring Whitehall, or new modes of communication (important though those are) it is about fundamental change to the anachronistic and destructive culture of political decision making. Arguably, this is the most important challenge, for how are the public to appreciate difficult trade offs, or to accept the variations in service levels and greater civic responsibilities that come with genuine decentralisation unless they engage constructively with decision makers?

The Tories have a small window of opportunity to change the terms of trade between politicians and citizens. Unless they take that opportunity they will face the same disconnect that has increasingly bedevilled Labour in government.”

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