In this article, Robert Page explores moderate forms of Conservative ‘progressivism’ post-1945 and asks whether Cameron’s Conservatives are continuing to fly the ‘progressive’ flag. With continued cuts to local authority budgets over the next two years and beyond, the Tories are likely to find it even harder to maintain a ‘progressive’ image, but they aren’t throwing in the towel just yet.
Traditionally, Conservatives have been wary of the notion of ‘progress’ because of its association with ideological attempts to ‘improve’ citizens or transform society in a socialist direction. Instead, they tend to favour pragmatic adaptations to prevailing economic and social concerns provided they carry no perceived threat to national traditions and dispositions.
Nevertheless, over the past hundred years or more, Conservatives have been keen to avoid being seen as ‘out of touch’ reactionaries whose sole interest was to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. Accordingly, efforts have been made to elevate or improve working class living standards whilst maintaining the established social order and preserving the influence of long-standing institutions. The Disraelian reforms in areas such as housing, public health and education in the 1870s and the subsequent ‘Tory democracy’ initiatives promoted by Randolph Churchill are examples of these moderate forms of Conservative ‘progressivism’. Similarly, under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin, the Conservatives undertook a range of progressive state welfare interventions in spheres such as pensions, housing and Poor Law reform during the inter-war period.
The post-1945 Conservative ‘One Nation’ rapprochement with Labour’s welfare state reforms can also be seen as an attempt to demonstrate that the party was prepared to make one of its periodic progressive adjustments in response to popular opposition initiatives. Shorn of its egalitarian ‘excesses’, state welfare provision was seen, for example, as perfectly compatible with the creation of a property owning democracy.
By the mid -1970s, however, there was growing disquiet within Conservative ranks that the welfare state was becoming incompatible with cherished party doctrines. Neoliberal critiques of the adverse economic and social consequences of what was now deemed to be a profligate ‘nanny’ state led to attempts to reduce social expenditure and curb ‘welfare’ dependency. While the neoliberal Conservatives remained supportive of aspirational working class voters, as evidenced by their promotion of council house sales and share ownership, their attitude to working aged claimants became more punitive and hostile. During both the Thatcher and Major eras progressive, paternalistic Conservatism could be said to have taken a step backwards. This uncaring reputation enabled New Labour to seize the electoral initiative and present itself once more as the more progressive of the two major parties, by its embrace of neoliberal economic policies whilst retaining their party’s historic commitment to social justice.
Although William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, attempted to soften their party’s ‘flinty’ image during the wilderness years in opposition from 1997 to 2005, not least by extolling the virtues of compassionate conservatism, it was not until David Cameron’s election as leader that the Conservatives made a concerted attempt to move away from the toxic social legacy of Thatcherism so that they could challenge New Labour’s progressive reputation. To this end, Cameron and his inner circle called a halt to the disparaging of non-threatening ‘alternative’ lifestyles such as lone motherhood and gay partnerships and toned down the party’s anti-state rhetoric. Cameron championed The Big society in an effort to reassure voters of his party’s commitment to civil society and expressed his support for social justice and for tackling relative poverty. By this progressive shift to the political centre, Cameron hoped to emulate the electoral success of the Moderate party in Sweden, who were able to defeat the Social Democrats in the 2006 and 2010 General Elections on a pro-welfare state and pro-work platform.
Cameron’s adherence to a decidedly neoliberal economic policy as prime minister of the Conservative-led coalition government since 2010 has made it difficult for him to wrestle the ‘progressive’ mantle from Labour. The decision to rescind the commitment to match Labour’s spending powers while in opposition coupled with the decision to cut the ‘deficit’ through spending cuts rather than tax rises has led to accusations that any supposed ‘progressive’ Conservative renaissance amounts to little more than a smokescreen for a hard-line ‘Thatcherite’ agenda. However, Cameron, his chancellor George Osborne and other influential cabinet minsters such as Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove have continued to proclaim their ‘progressive’ Conservative credentials even in cases where it is acknowledged that new measures such as the benefits cap, the bedroom tax, increased council tax contributions and below-inflation benefit rises will result in additional burdens for some of the poorest members of society. These initiatives have been characterised as ‘proportionate’ sacrifices that need to be measured against equally painful curbs on middle class eligibility for Child Tax Credits and Child Benefit and ‘crackdowns’ on both tax evasion and avoidance.
In a similar vein Michael Gove has argued that the main purpose of his decision to expand the Academy programme and to introduce ‘free’ schools was not to undermine the egalitarian ethos that prompted Labour education initiatives in the past but, rather, to adopt better means to increase educational opportunity and mobility for disadvantaged pupils. Even the decision to reduce the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% for those earning over £150,000 per annum in the spring of 2013 was defended on the ‘progressive’ rationale that this was likely to result in higher overall revenues because it would lead to less tax avoidance. Set against this, though, it should be noted that continued references to benefit ‘shirkers and skivers’ suggests that Cameron’s brand of progressivism does not extend to a warm embrace of ‘undeserving’ claimants – a move which would leave the party at risk of being seen, like their Labour opponents, as a soft welfare party.
With continued cuts to local authority budgets over the next two years and beyond which will lead to the loss of valuable services and tighter eligibility requirements for prospective service users, the Conservatives are likely to find it even harder to maintain a ‘progressive’ image even amongst those in more comfortable economic circumstances. However, as Osborne’s recent support for an above-inflation rise in the minimum wage attests, the Cameron Conservatives are showing little sign of throwing in the progressive towel just yet.
Robert Page’s article”‘Progressive’ turns in post-1945 Conservative Social Policy” was published as part of a symposium on progressivism edited by Emily Robinson in Political Studies Review 12: 1, pp.17-28.
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About the Author
Robert Page is a Reader in Democratic Socialism and Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. His book on The Conservative Party and the Welfare State Since 1940 is due to be published by Policy Press in 2015.