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Rene Kinzett

The natural affinity of Liberal Conservatism

May 17th, 2010 by René Kinzett

This article originally appeared on WalesHome…

THE NEW Liberal Conservative Coalition Government has put forward its proposals for a far-reaching programme of constitutional reform and the restoration and protection of civil liberties.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have historically been opposing forces in British politics, disagreeing on issues such as electoral reform, devolution and House of Lords reform over the past 100 years or so. To observe some of the ways in which those who articulate the starkest differences between the two parties behave, one could be forgiven for thinking that the lines of conflict as drawn down by William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli are as relevant now as they were in the 1850s. Gladstone described the fault line in Victorian politics thus:

“Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”

For his part, Benjamin Disraeli could never resist the temptation to get under the skin of his more straight-laced opponent:

“The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity.”

But Disraeli also had a serious mission on his hands: to make the Tory Party electable, to seek new supporters among traditionally anti-conservative groups and to prove that the Party was capable of representing and understanding the interests of the whole of society. Sounds familiar? Much like the reforms, re-branding and ‘decontamination’ mission of David Cameron, Disraeli’s efforts were based in the basic principle of the protection of the vulnerable and the desire for both social mobility and improved conditions for the poorest in society. One of Disraeli’s most powerful quotes comes from his novel Sybil which studied the horrific conditions of the English working classes, published in the same year as Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. The novel was also known as “The Two Nations”:

Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.

Sybil gave us the term ‘One Nation Toryism’ and Disraeli set his sights on transforming the forces of conservatism (which he had famously derided by describing the concept of a Conservative government as “an organized hypocrisy”) and creating the new movement of Refoming Toryism. His battles with Gladstone over the Reform Bills of 1866 and 1867 ended with Disraeli’s Government finally getting a Reform Act onto the statute book in 1867, a more radical package of measures than proposed by his Liberal counterpart. Disraeli’s social and industrial policies were also welcomed by the embryonic representative organisations of the working classes.

David Cameron has used his own journey to ‘liberal conservatism’ to press for a realignment in British politics and soon after he was elected leader of the Party, he reached out to Liberal Democrats in a speech in Bath, a call which I had already answered having made the switch myself from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives four years ago. Ironically, it was Tony Blair who had originally set himself up as the architect of a ‘new politics’ and set up a joint Labour-Lib Dem Cabinet Committee to look at issues like electoral and Lords reform. Blair’s dream of a Labour-Liberal Democrat realignment (wanting to make the 20th Century the “radical century”), based on his previous discussions with Lord Jenkins and others, was broken up on the rocks of Labour’s unexpectedly huge Commons majority in 1997 – he simply did not need the Lib Dems and his party told him so.

Cameron, for better or worse, is not in the same position as Blair in 1997 and needs the Liberal Democrats in order to provide the nation with a strong, secure government. However, I am somewhat taken with the idea that Cameron is not displeased with this situation as it really means that he can head the Liberal Conservative Government with the kind of policies and approach to the key social, political and economic questions he was promising as party leader. I note that my colleagues on the right of the party are keen for Cameron to nip this kind of argument in the bud, but I rather think there is a lot of truth in the assumption that the new Prime Minister can get more of his own agenda through the party as part of this coalition government than he could in a Conservative minority scenario. Simply put, the Prime Minister is not a prisoner of the right of the party and he is clearly relishing the prospect to be one of the most reforming national leaders in the last 100 years.

Thus far, the criticisms from the left have been obvious and predictable. To believe some of the worst cant and hypocrisy from left-wingers, one might imagine that the 1997-2010 Government was a paragon of reform and that the 2010 Labour Manifesto contained further steps towards a utopia. When, in the last 13 years of Labour government, was it acceptable to liberals or socialists that ID Cards should be brought in? When has it ever been in the Liberal handbook to extend CCTV and collect DNA samples for a national database from the innocent?

The Liberal-Conservative coalition can hold its head high with such proposals as the extension of the Freedom of Information Act, the ending of storage of emails and internet records without good cause, the protection of the principle of trial by jury and the restoration of historic freedoms for the right to peaceful protest. The erosion of ancient liberties and the encroachment of the surveillance state have been some of the worst aspects of the Blair and Brown years. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are able to agree on so much with regard to civil liberties as we approach the issue with similar principles, centred around the rights of individuals, a rejection of top-down government and a recognition that society and the state are not the same thing.

Historically speaking, the partnership between Conservatives and Liberals in Parliament may at first glance seem odd, almost impossible. But a greater study of the development of the Conservative Party, a deeper understanding of the principle of reforming One Nation Toryism and the approach to politics and society taken by David Cameron over the past five years, clearly shows that this Liberal Conservative Coalition has every chance of making a lasting impact on British society and the body politic.

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