Monday, 17 May 2010

Liberal Conservatism

Now that I have my dream government, or something closely resembling it, one of four things is going to happen: I shall become very boring, cheering the Con-Lib coalition with nauseating regularity; I shall lay off politics altogether and find something else to write about; or I shall rapidly discover that the Nick and Dave show is, after all, a squalid, unworkable nightmare, riven by splits and patched-up compromises and generally useless. Alternatively I shall go the way of (most recently) Letters from A Tory and shut up shop.

In the meantime, I offer a few personal reflections on the nature of liberalism and conservatism, their compatibilities and tensions and what (if any) sort of liberal I am.

A good place to start is the phrase David Cameron used to introduce his new administration: Liberal Conservative. Many assumed that he was merely combining political nomenclature, but in that case it would have been more natural for him to place the name of his own (larger) party first and describe his coalition as "Conservative and Liberal" or Conservative/Lib Dem. By calling his government Liberal Conservative, he used an expression he has previously employed to define his own political philosophy. The formula suggests at the very least conservatism tempered by liberalism, in other words one that is moderate and centrist (for "liberal", a slippery word and even more slippery concept, can mean as little as "not hardline"); but I would argue that there is capital-L liberalism present here, too, and not just because there are now four Liberal Democrats in the cabinet.

"Liberal Conservative" is not an oxymoron - unlike another phrase Cameron tried on for size last year, "progressive conservatism", which is indeed an absurdity. They are distinct political philosophies, to be sure, but there has always been an interplay between the two. Gladstone, who created the 19th century Liberal party, began his political career as the great hope of the "stern, unbending Tories" and while in some ways he became increasingly radical - like Tony Benn, immaturing with age - in other respects (for example in his religious opinions) he remained profoundly conservative. And in yesterday's Observer Charles Kennedy was reminding us of the historical tendency of Liberals to end up joining the Tories.

That is not to deny profound differences of outlook between conservatives and liberals. At the most basic level, a true liberal believes that ultimately nothing is sacrosanct, while a conservative, as the name implies, wants to conserve things. The distinction may come down to theology. Liberals are Pelagian, believing in essential human goodness and perfectibility; conservatives tend to be Augustinian, believers in original sin and, thus, generally of the view that politics comes down to making the best of a bad job. Conservatives are realists about human nature, but their romantic attachment to history and historic institutions saves them from cynicism or despair. Liberals have no such sentimentality about things, but are often idealistic about people. When, as inevitably happens, people refuse to live up to the liberal's expectations, the liberal risks developing a desire to boss people about - for their own good, of course. Thus is born the "left-liberal" style of socialism.

Still, get the mix right and Liberalism and Conservatism can complement one another. I would argue indeed that they need each other: Conservatism without Liberalism can be oppressive (because it encourages conformity with traditional morality and power-structures even at the expense of individual self-determination) while Liberalism without Conservatism is nihilistic. As JS Mill spotted, most people are not by inclination liberals: "They have no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have." To be liberal is to tolerate and appreciate difference in others, and that requires not merely respect but, more importantly, trust. Individual liberty is sustainable only where individuals are self-disciplined and altruistic, for any functioning society needs a foundation of order and a sense of responsibility. When traditional structures are removed, as a result of economic transition or social change, a dangerous vacuum is created. At least, there is perceived to be such a vacuum, because a majority of the population experiences the resulting uncertainty not as an opportunity but as a threat.

People crave reassurance and instruction - I don't, you probably don't, but we're in the minority. So the liberal is faced with a dilemma: ignore, as far as is possible, the social disruptions brought about by change, on the basis that freedom has its casualties - this course leads to "neo-liberalism", in other words laissez-faire, and a state that strives to stay out of economic life. More than any mechanism yet created, the free market has the ability to set people free and enable them to realise their dreams. The downside of unconstrained market liberalism is that power invariably ends up in the hands of private corporations, as employers and as determiners of economic policy, who can be as overbearing and may be less accountable than an interventionist state. Consumers rather than citizens, people come to feel they have no control over the forces shaping their lives. On the other hand, they can afford a new kitchen.

The tendency in the Liberal Democrats has been to think of themselves as a party of the centre-left, somewhat less statist than Labour but every bit as suspicious of the private sector. This approach stresses social rather than economic liberalism, but in an effort to promote the individual rights of citizens it has to define those rights, often by imposing a new liberal orthodoxy. While they may deplore Labour's natural tendency towards authoritarianism and undervaluing of the individual, the left-leaning Liberal shares its belief that people should be improved, whether or not they want to be.

Another, and for me better, way of avoiding Liberalism's internal contradictions lies in Conservatism. Insititutions, traditions, family, a belief in old-fashioned virtues such as financial prudence, even (though I hate to admit it) religion - such things provide an anchor for society. There's a sense of stability and safety, not imposed by an omnipresent government but inherent within the patchwork of relationships at every level. On its own, the danger is one of stultifying conformity - but the admixture of liberalism sets the people free.

The traditional academic education provided by grammar schools used to be the great engine of social mobility, now stalled - but proper education (which should be available to all, not just the most gifted or, as increasingly these days, the well-off) offers more than economic advancement, it allows spiritual and imaginative release. The welfare state should provide a safety net, in the true meaning of the phrase, giving people the confidence to jump; instead it has become more like a fishing net, entangling its victims until all initiative in them dies. No government should dictate the private life of its citizens - but nor should it forget that while many different forms of relationship are possible and healthy the nuclear family is what keeps society together.

Or take civil liberties, which both parties now in government claim to believe in. They do not come from nowhere, not even the European Human Rights Convention. The rights and protections we cherish - trial by jury, habeas corpus, the rule of law, rights of protest and free speech - are the legacy of our history, hard-won from usually unwilling rulers but as traditionally English as roast beef and oak-trees. It's no coincidence that they came under more threat from a "New Labour" government with no sense of history and an obsession with all things new and "progressive" than from the previous, supposedly right-wing Tory administrations that preceded it. Conservatives, after all, want to conserve our traditions. Personal privacy was another predictable casualty of a government infected by the wrong sort of progressive liberalism. Conservatives, traditionally, have been loath to extend the supervision of the state over private life. And so they are - or should be - naturally suspicious of centralised databases, state-ordained diets (are you eating your five portions a day?) and endless initiatives of social engineering.

Privacy isn't simply good in and of itself. For me, it is the single most important precondition of freedom. Privacy affords us personal psychological space. It allows us somewhere to be ourselves, to make mistakes, to hide from prying eyes, to indulge private fantasies and to overcome the past. A world in which our every action and thought is monitored, recorded and is available for data-mining is not only unforgiving of youthful folly (or adult indiscretion); it also feels unfree. You are constantly looking over your shoulder, afraid to put a foot wrong. New Labour took this technological danger and made it a principle of policy, often in pursuit of supposedly liberal objectives. It demanded employers collect information about the sexual orientation of their staff, for example. None of their fucking business, say I. Prejudice against gay people is a terrible thing, but it cannot be solved by statistics. Nor can it be solved by turning traditionally-minded religious people into free-speech martyrs. Conservatives know that society changes over time, but that for change to be real and lasting it has to come naturally in its own time. Liberals can encourage change, but it is always illiberal to force it.

A state that asserts its power over the individual is an oppressor, however benign its intentions, however well-meaning and morally comfortable its supporters. Any government, even (perhaps especially) a "liberal" one which expands the scope of state supervision over the individual and over the institutions of civil society tends towards tyranny. Worst of all, though, it never works and the country goes bankrupt in the process. A properly liberal society requires a government that is prepared to step back and let people get on with their own lives. And the best guarantee of such a government is scepticism on the part of politicians about their own ability to effect change. Conservatism breeds that scepticism. In the end, liberalism and conservatism, like Dave and Nick, complete each other's sentences.