Who are Britain’s new Conservatives?

By Adrian Worsfold

The British have a new government, a coalition government after its three party based first past the post system failed to produce a majority for one party.

New Labour had, basically, come to its end. The one time big tent centre to the left spread of the party’s appeal had hollowed out its own base support, at least in England. Having gone on to lose so much acquired middle class support it returned to rediscover its base, all perhaps too late. Gordon Brown was a manager of detail, but lacked vision and taking decisions ahead of the curve. On the other hand, memories of the Thatcherite Conservatives were ever continuous, and the Conservative leader David Cameron was untried and unknown as to whether his Big Society just meant a smaller State and Thatcher mark II. Then arose Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who seemed to shine from nowhere with his communication skills in the almost presidential debates, except that in the last week some of the policies were hammered by the critics and he started to sound repetitive. Labour in fact fought a last minute rearguard campaign to some effect, and Cameron also had a last minute flourish.

The Liberal Democrats’ vote went up by only 1% from last time, but the number of seats fell. Their 23% produced 57 seats, Labour’s 29% of the vote produced 258 seats, and The Conservatives’ 36% produced 306 seats. Others received 28 seats from 12% of the vote. There is a delayed vote in one constituency, where the front runners normally are the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, and remain opposing each other there. Meanwhile, David Cameron has made a virtue of fixing a coalition with the Liberal Democrats that followed intense negotiations, and he was also pushed this way further by not one of his allied Ulster Unionists winning a Westminster seat, a joining that, in my view, potentially undermined British honest brokering regarding the parties in Northern Ireland. The new one seat win of the non-sectarian Alliance Party from there ought to side with its sister party, the Liberal Democrats, but it may retain independence.

Many who supported the Liberal Democrats voted in order to keep the Conservatives out of power. However, when a broad left coalition was tested, it was not so much the necessity of bringing in left-wing nationalists, the Green and Alliance that was the problem, but that significant numbers of the Labour Party itself who had lost the will to make such a coalition and to carry on in power.

The actual outcome coalition seems to be giving David Cameron the opportunity to modernise the Conservative Party further towards the centre and to actually do some of the reforms New Labour considered but never did because of its self-sufficient majorities. Originally Tony Blair, who openly warmed to the liberal tradition, had considered ‘bringing in’ the Liberal Democrats and introducing voting and constitutional reform, but there was a lack of necessity. He missed this opportunity like he missed entering Britain into the euro currency. In fact he missed a lot of things and then seemed to enter into his own junior coalition with President Bush, assisting the ongoing draining of support from Labour.

I voted Liberal Democrat and yet, in a Labour-Conservative marginal, was tempted to vote Labour despite not wanting to offer it positive support. However, I am a liberal in political economy and religion, and so I voted my first choice, and it is a largely misunderstood ideological position.

The Liberal Democrats are the combination of the historical Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party that broke away from a left wing Labour Party in the 1980s. The Liberals are themselves descended from the Whig Party, so that the Whigs and the Tories were the land owning elites who rotated political power. The present Conservative Party descends from those Tories who were in favour of free trade. The Liberals attracted the middle class industrialists and the urban radicals, and increasingly became more social liberal and welfare reforming than economic liberal – yet still individualist – but in terms of government were superseded by the collectivist socialistic Labour Party, whose high point was the considerable nationalisation and socialisation of business and welfare immediately after the Second World War. The Conservatives adopted the welfare state with mixed economy as part of its ‘national party’ outlook, but under the revolutionary Margaret Thatcher adopted what is known as ‘Manchester Liberalism’, or economic liberalism, that of private wealth and public basics. Whilst she flushed out inflation, a lot of price inflation was held down by far eastern competition. Tony Blair, in privatising further, and in further liberalising finance, had much in common with his main predecessor, except that he poured money into collaborative not competitive public services, some of which were provided by private firms under contract. A lot of this public and private wealth generation was through private lending, which, along with consumer and property debt(and inflated property prices being where the inflation went), led to the debt crisis that we have today.

Back in the days of the two party social democratic consensus, the Liberal Party shrunk to 3 seats and 2% of the vote in 1955. Jo Grimond (1913-1993) became its philosopher leader, building the Liberals as pro-ideas and anti-interests (neither unions nor business), and an opponent of bureaucratic state action as the means to social change. He favoured local decentralisation and participation in decision making structures by individuals in communities with freedom of choice as foundation rock. This was therefore a radicalism different from Labour at the time.

Such liberalism was consistent with the Liberal past, and it is why liberalism never stretched into the collectivist industrial working class. This is also parallel with the Unitarians as religious liberals, who could run many a Sunday school and welfare organisation to draw in ‘outer ring’ working class children and parents, but it was never itself able to convert its radicalism into a religious form of socialism. Unitarian religion had its origins in middle class English Presbyterian merchants and then in urban capitalism; it drew on the ideology of the Scottish and French Enlightenment. They were once Manchester Liberals, thus economic liberals that became, with social conscience and radical outreach, social liberals. Incidentally, Labour Churches were a flop: from the beginning, working class movements were secular. Whilst the Church of England was feudal at base, all the denominations were middle class in agitation for reform and in people. There were chapels of the ‘respectable working class’ and exceptions among dangerous primary industry workers, but these were exceptions. Nevertheless the middle class intellectual socialist did draw on some ‘respectable’ denominational and post war ‘Christian socialist’ roots as well as purely secular socialist ideology.

The Church of England was long called the Tory Party at prayer, a label broken by the anti-traditionalist Manchester Liberalism (and ‘couldn’t care less’ stance) of Thatcherism, whereas New Labour looked to the different faiths for some ethical values and sought to give a leg up to the lowest (while the upper end of the social scale became richer and richer). So what now?

In my view, the current government of a minority of Liberal Democrats nevertheless represents exactly the Jo Grimond ideological position, including those untested parts of New Labour that this government seems intent on embodying and enacting. If Thatcher’s was an economic liberal government, this is a social liberal government, and Cameron seems suddenly to relish the fact.

Yet it is a difficult ideology to explain. It just seems unusual and different. The Unitarians have the same problem, in that the ‘Just what do you stand for?’ question has such an acquired, long term, difficult to address, answer. Here is an answer. It is about the liberty of each individual to believe as wanted but responsibly, drawing on the resources of the different faiths and an awe for the wonder of science, and to do it in dialogue inside communities (very equalitarian congregations), and to be socially aware and active, to basically uphold the dignity of the cultural and biological human individual and all of life around.

In religious terms it is not left and it is not right. This, I believe, is also how to understand the new government in Britain intellectually. It will be about political reform, ideas over interests, anti-bureaucratic and decentralising, and for individuals in communities. But not a lot of people may understand it, and many a Conservative may be upset.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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