Are the LibDems the compassionate side of Cameron’s Conservatism?
You don’t get many rats scurrying to join a sinking ship. The news that lawyer David Allen Green has joined the Liberal Democrats would not merit a mention upon this blog were it not for the fact the he writes for the New Statesman and tweets prominently (prolifically and incessantly). With his new party besieged by critics and slumping in the polls, and his new leader harangued and scorned by Gillian Duffy (no less), his conversion (if it be; he might simply have finally ‘come out’) is certainly contra the zeitgeist and completely counter-intuitive. Yet, knowing how people like underdogs, perhaps he is no different from those poor, misguided souls who have flocked to join Labour under Edward Miliband. It’s all quite unremarkable and perhaps perfectly explicable (especially if he wants a safe(-ish) seat under AV).
But David Allen Green’s reasoning for joining the LibDems at this particular juncture merits a little analysis. He points to articles (here and here) by Tim Montgomerie (blessings for the graphic), which suggest the current government is significantly more liberal than an entirely Conservative administration would otherwise be. And so Mr Green concludes (without any apparent comprehension of what Mr Montgomerie is doing): ‘There is only one political force which is having an actual liberal effect in our polity as it is presently constituted, and it is the Liberal Democrats... What the Liberal Democrats are doing in practice may not be popular, but it certainly should be commended by any liberal person.’
If perpetual liberalisation were Mr Green’s goal, it is bizarre indeed that he would give his support to a party which denies foundational tenets of JS Mill. Only devout anti-democrats would deny the British people a referendum on the inexorable assigning of powers to European Union institutions; and only totalitarian Marxists would seek to eradicate the Christian faith from the public sphere. Both of these Liberal Democrat macro-objectives are contrary to any notion of liberalism and antithetical to the majority democratic profession of the British people.
Essentially, Mr Green’s reason for joining the LibDems is that he believes they represent the liberal, rational, moderate and compassionate force in the coalition: whatever the 'nasty' Tories want to do, it is the LibDems who rein them in; soften them, moderate them, make their obnoxious policy somehow more palatable. That is the developing narrative, and it spells danger for the Conservatives.
But it is a crass analysis and an utterly superficial reading of the situation.
The Conservative Party has been a coalition since its inception: it has its ‘liberal’ wing inbuilt, and the extent to which it manifests itself in policy is dependent on the character and disposition of the Leader. Under David Cameron, there has been a focus on empowering communities because the sense of political community is intrinsic to people’s sense of the need for social community. This is part of his ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ agenda. It is not down to the LibDems: it is Conservatives who see that community is a fundamental human good because commitments and values are shared; the good life demands participation in a political community, and this requires communal participation in a political organisation of the widest scope, such as the nation state.
David Cameron is exploring the relational and social strands of conservatism consonant with the party’s Christian foundations: it is not original, for he is standing on the shoulders of Disraeli and his ‘One-Nation Conservatism’. The narrative focus is on welfare, family breakdown and ‘social justice’ in the context of traditional conservative themes like low taxation and the small state. Its proponents aver that social problems are better solved through cooperation with private companies, charities and religious institutions rather than directly through government departments. And so the ‘Centre for Social Justice’, headed by Roman Catholic MP and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, issued the reports Breakdown Britain (2006) and Breakthrough Britain (2007) as a means of identifying the causes of social ills and encouraging stability.
This was a Conservative initiative: not a LibDem one.
Although the terms ‘One-Nation’ and ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ may be dismissed as vacuous electioneering sound-bites designed to make conservatism (or, rather, the Conservative Party) more appealing, there is little doubt that those involved in the formulation of policy are genuinely seeking ways of mitigating the polarisation of society evidenced in both Militant Socialism and what became known as ‘Thatcherism’. Yet, curiously, David Allen Green has not uttered a word in support of Margaret Thatcher’s conservatism, which was founded on personal freedom and the repudiation of bureaucratic vested interests, waste and economic stagnation.
It is not the LibDems who injected ‘social justice’ into the Conservative brew, but individual Conservatives who have worked patiently and doggedly behind the scenes throughout years of opposition. They seek to prioritise the moral and spiritual health of the nation just as much as Margaret Thatcher was concerned with its economic health. Under David Cameron, economic reality and moral concerns are no longer in conflict. Academics such as Professor Timothy Garton-Ash observed (a year before the election, Mr Green) that Britain now has ‘two social democratic parties’ lacking any real ideological differences: they are both capitalist; all that divides them is ‘the question of which form of capitalism works best’. And the political theorist and philosopher David Selbourne observed that the Conservative Party’s traditional themes ‘have largely disappeared...or can be glimpsed only in dilute, timid and half-baked forms’. He concluded: ‘It is as if the party, in its “modernised”, pick’n’mix condition, was embarrassed by the very impulse to conserve.’
These shifts of emphasis in Conservative philosophy and political policy have not come about as a result of coalition with the Liberal Democrats: under Nick Clegg, that party has become increasingly illiberal, undemocratic and corporatist. It is why they seek to exist ‘at the heart of Europe’, while the Whiggish and liberal wing of the Conservatives continues to agitate for liberty. If David Allen Green were really concerned with having ‘an actual liberal effect’, he would have joined the Conservative Party, for that is the only party in Parliament which sustains any understanding of the priorities of JS Mill.