Ryan Shorthouse

Why liberal conservatism isn’t dead

David Cameron led the Conservatives out of the political wilderness by pursuing the modernisation of the Tory brand, which had become associated with reactionary social attitudes and a dog eat dog economy.

In today’s tricky economic climate, the Tories need to focus on challenging perceptions that they are the ‘party of the rich’, offering policies that ease the cost of living and improve public services for those on low- to middle-incomes.

But this urgent task does not quell the need to continue the unfinished social modernisation of the Conservative Party, most often associated with Cameron’s early premiership: namely, modernising the party’s stance on gay rights, climate change, wellbeing, poverty and international development, so Tories are seen to be representative of and addressing current concerns and attitudes.

This is the justification for pursuing the ‘liberal conservatism’ that Cameron touted in sunnier, pre-recession days. But this agenda is now coming under attack, with critics arguing that liberal conservatism’s concerns jar with and distract from today’s glum economic conditions. Others argue it is worse: mere cross-dressing, see-through and devoid of principle.

This is unfair and these grievances need challenging. Liberal Conservatism is much more than political game-playing, fit for only one moment in time. Instead, it is a unique and compelling worldview, which draws on the best Conservative traditions, providing the intellectual foundations for the mind-set of the modern, liberal Conservative.

First, liberal Conservatism is positive about human nature. It rejects ugly and cynical assumptions of the political left: namely, that people’s lives are entirely determined by factors out of their control – such as genes or inequality – and that people are tainted by money-making, and thus state regulation – and more extremely, state ownership – of businesses is needed.

Here the libertarian side of the liberal Conservative emerges.

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