Two days after Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States, the British leader of the opposition sought to capitalise on the progressive trend in global politics. David Cameron delivered a speech in which he articulated his governing philosophy: progressive conservatism.
His alignment with the progressive tradition, in order to create ‘a society that is fairer, where we help people out of poverty and help them stay out of it… where opportunity is equal,’ was particularly bold given its association with the left. Cameron reassured the traditionalists within his party that these goals would be achieved not by state managerialism, but by ‘decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions.’
Cameron thereby reformulated progressivism, departing from its traditional emphasis on the state whilst retaining its concern with social justice. The Big Society initiative, widely derided as an empty soundbite, encouraged individuals to take greater responsibility for the needs of their local community, and increased opportunities for non-governmental organisations and social enterprises. Yet this was not merely a call for voluntarism to compensate for public service cuts. Instead, Cameron’s progressive conservatism was grounded in a critique of the culture that led to Thatcherism and Third Way socialism: ‘The Big Society’ was presented as the solution to the flaws of big government, which was alleged to have fostered a dependency culture and excessive individualism, because of which people no longer felt a sense of community or any responsibility to those around them.
To what extent did Cameron govern as a progressive conservative during six years in 10 Downing Street? He certainly used progressive language when it suited his purposes. Upon assuming the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2005, Cameron exhorted party members to stop ‘grumbling about modern Britain’ urging them to share his love of the country ‘as it is, not as it was,’ His desired ends of helping people out of poverty, equality of opportunity, and a greener and safer country, were indeed progressive. However, Cameron’s rhetoric did not always match his actions. His ‘hug a husky’ plea seemed hollow in the context of his government’s support for the construction of HS2, shale gas exploration and badger culling.
Much has been made of Cameron’s electoral motives for detoxifying the party’s image, as if this somehow delegitimises his progressivism. Whilst it was in Cameron’s interests to move the party towards the centre after three successive election defeats, his approach to social issues whilst in office suggests that his progressive agenda was sincere as well as politically expedient. The Marriage Act of 2013 was a clear example of Cameron’s progressive agenda translated into policy. Redefining marriage was a significant departure from the social conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, whose premiership was characterised by moral authoritarianism. However, equal marriage became law despite considerable resistance from many party members and backbench MPs, demonstrating the continued strength of socially conservative forces within society.
Even though direct references to the ‘Big Society’ were infrequent following its unsuccessful launch, its ideas influenced government policy: welfare recipients were required to demonstrate genuine need for government hand-outs; big firms provided employability training previously administered by the state; parent-led free schools were created. Nevertheless, Cameron’s government left itself open to accusations that it did not simply deviate from the orthodox meaning of progressivism, but also failed on its own terms. It spent money on initiatives to prevent complex social problems and to support the provision of voluntary sector programmes, and in so doing resembled the state micromanagement for which Cameron so disdained the Labour governments from 1997-2010. Far from encouraging voluntarism and localism, the Big Society preserved the top-down approach to governing in Britain.
Until the global financial crisis hit, Cameron and George Osborne had committed themselves to match the Labour government’s spending figures. From then on, they pursued a radical policy of austerity that meant their progressive agenda, which had included engaging with environmental issues and poverty, was replaced by an austere approach predicated upon deficit reduction and financial prudence. The government’s mantra that ‘we’re all in this together’ betrayed this reality: in Cameron’s six years as prime minister, the rich became richer, whilst the poorest and most vulnerable bore the brunt of deep public service cuts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies condemned the government’s emergency budget in 2010 for its disproportionate impact on the nation’s poorest families, because of which the poorest families lost an estimated 5.2% of their income, compared with the richest, who lost 1.1%. As Tim Bale observes, it is difficult to reconcile Cameron’s willingness to tackle vested interests in the public, but not private, sector with ‘common sense understandings of the term progressive and the ideas of the American political movement to which it gave name,’ which ‘was about using the power of the democratic state not just to clean up corruption and slim the civil service but also to put capitalist robber-barons… firmly in their place.’
Just as Cameron’s government cannot be considered progressive because of its suspicion of the state and failure to empower communities through the Big Society initiative, its conservative credentials are also dubious. Conservatives are characterised by their rejection of abstract ideology and commitment to the nation. Whilst Cameron, like Thatcher, was a fiscally conservative prime minister, he deviated from her approach in numerous ways. His government’s extension of marriage to homosexual couples is the most notable example, but his statement that ‘there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same as the state’ was an unambiguous rebuke of the excessive individualism encouraged by her administration.
Whereas Thatcher was cautious instinctively, only accepting fights she knew she could win, such as the Falklands War or the battle against the trade unions, Cameron’s approach to constitutional issues has been devastatingly radical. Having won a referendum on electoral reform, which the Liberal Democrats demanded as a condition for the coalition agreement, and having also narrowly defeated the Scottish nationalists in 2014, Cameron offered an In/Out referendum on European Union membership in order to placate his disgruntled backbenchers. He was the gambler whose luck finally ran out. Cameron’s reckless disposition not only brought his political career to a premature end, but left Britain deeply divided.
To describe Cameron’s government as progressive would be to ignore its extreme suspicion of the state and the discrepancy between its rhetoric and policies. To describe it as conservative would be to ignore its social liberalism and careless disregard towards the fragile constitutional arrangement in Britain. Somewhat paradoxically, criticism of Cameron’s progressive credentials is based both on his government’s failure to decentralise power meaningfully, and its deviation from the principle that the state can bring about social advancement. Cameron’s government did not represent progressivism or conservatism as they have been understood traditionally, nor was it progressive in its own reformulation of the idea.
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