The strange case of conservative progressives
One of the most interesting lines in Tony Blair’s revealing book comes in the introduction:
’…I was and remain first and foremost not so much a politician of traditional left and right, but a moderniser. I wanted to modernise the Labour Party so it was capable, not intermittently but continuously, of offering a progressive alternative to Conservative rule. I wanted to modernise Britain so that, while retaining pride in having worn the mantle of the world’s most powerful nation as the twentieth century began, it didn’t feel bereft and in decline as the twenty first century began because that mantle would no longer fit’.
The admission that Blair was not a man of the left – indeed he acknowledges that on economics and law and order he is on the centre right – may appal some in the Labour Party but comes as no surprise to those of us who worked for him.
Everyday it seems a Labour leadership candidate repudiates another aspect of New Labour doctrine and record. But behind this tactical posturing there is a more profound questioning, which is of wider relevance and interest than Labour’s internal manoeuvrings.
In this month’s Prospect, two former Brown advisors Nick Pearce (now back as Director of ippr) and Gavin Kelly write about the need for social democrats to tap into a sense of ‘social patriotism’:
‘Beyond eco-conservativism, the centre-left hasn’t worked out the strands of conservative thinking that should form a core part of its political identity in the 21st century. Only when it finds a sure footing on this territory will it find a way of responding to some of the cultural concerns of the electorate that currently find expression in hostility to immigration.’
And here is Jon Cruddas MP, one of Labour’s most original and respected thinkers, writing in a few weeks ago in the New Statesman:
‘Labour has to win back…terrain with a language that can encompass both cosmopolitan modernity and English conservative culture, linking them together in a sense of national purpose. It would incorporate all the things Blair dismissed as anachronisms: tradition; a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.
England once had this kind of conservative, common culture; it acted as a counter to the commodification of labour and to social isolation. Ruskin provided its rallying cry, “There is no wealth but life.” At one time Labour gave expression to this kind of conservatism. It need not be reactionary, right-wing, or sentimental, although it has been all these things. Its political character will depend on Labour’s capacity to articulate a progressive and ethical conservatism that embraces difference. It need not be parochial or conformist: England celebrates a rich tradition of volatile, creative cultures. ’
These ideas strike a chord. Here is an extract from an article I wrote last year in Prospect:
‘New ideas about human nature can contribute to a more substantive meeting of minds between left and right. Thoughtful conservatives are once again recognising the importance of social context, inequality and the limits to market rationality. Labour thinkers can use the research to make the case for collective action and social justice, but they may also become more cautious about the capacity of the central state to empower communities, and more interested in the role of social norms and civic institutions”
So as Tony Blair reminds us that he was above all a moderniser, some thinkers from the left are exploring how (small ‘c’) conservative perspectives can be incorporated in the social democratic story.
Call me a sad case, but I find this intriguing. The RSA is a strictly politically non-aligned organisation but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in politics. Indeed, over the last few years we have had fascinating events discussing currents in left, right and liberal thinking.
Usually when people talk about moving beyond traditional left and right it is seen as a political ploy – a form of triangulation. But exploring the possibility of philosophy and practical politics which seeks to reconcile the ideals of social justice with the insights of social conservatism is a fascinating intellectual exercise.