David Cameron gave a speech on 'progressive conservatism' yesterday to Demos. It is proving to be the year of oxymoron. We had 'Red Tory' yesterday from the guy who is running the Demos progressive conservatism project. Presumably it's only a matter of time before we hear from the authoritarian liberals, the libertarian statists and the revolutionary feudalists (or the 'Back to the Futurists' as they will be more colloquially known.) I wait with baited breath.
Back to the speech. Cameron gave us four objectives that we can all share: a fairer, greener, safer society with greater opportunity for all. There, ten words instead of a few paragraphs. His point is that Labour believes in these things; it just can't deliver them. Apparently, the family has fared badly under Labour- let's just ignore tax credits, child benefit increases, Sure Start, record investment in schools and health, expansion of higher education, amongst other things- as they muddy the argument. So Cameron will place the family 'back' at the heart of policy. Policy will moreover be driven by a conservative ethos- basically 'less but better is more.'
The state necessarily fails. So how do we achieve the fairer, greener, safer society with greater opportunity for all? Roll back the state because that's the problem. So David, is your argument that we have had a safer, greener, fairer society with more opportunity when in history we have had a minimal state? The evidence just doesn't back it up.
At least Thatcher's argument for economic reform made some sense. A market economy is more dynamic that a state managed economy. It is unlikely to deliver those progressive values that you hold (I believe that you are sincere- but chronically misguided.) I also happen to believe that the discipline of returning decision-making to a more direct and local level and engaging civil society and the voluntary sector in a creative surge is necessary. I just don't think that pursuing such an ethos- which is what it clearly is rather than a philosophy or a programme- leads, solely in itself, to the ends that you identify.
Just take the 'greener' objective. For us to turn our economy into a world beating green economy requires the type of policy and regulatory approach that fosters green investment. It requires massive investment in infrastructure, scientific research, and a green economy geared skill base. It requires clustering of research, knowledge, design, manufacturing and specialist finance.
All this may happen spontaneously. More likely, there will need for a strategic direction to all this that involves the state, the financial market, regulators, business, universities, trade unions, local administration, the European Union, and the right global framework on trade and the environment.
Actually, what is required is something along the lines of the 'strategic state' outlined by Peter Mandelson before Christmas. As he rightly points out, there aren't many votes in this sort of agenda. I suspect there may be rather more votes in David Cameron's agenda as it sounds good on one level.
But in actual terms, in terms of the progressive goals that David Cameron has laid out, which has more to contribute? Certainly in terms of creating a greener economy with more opportunity, Peter Mandelson's strategic state has much more to offer than David Cameron's 'progressive conservative' ethos. Cameron will ultimately be faced with either sacrificing the means or the ends. So which is it to be? Are you a progressive over a conservative or vice versa? It is only right that we know.
Of course, all this is by the by to a certain extent in the current climate. If you can't get the right economic policy and get wholesale and retail financial markets functioning again, this is all rather academic. On that score, the Conservative Opposition have shown themselves to be woefully deficient. If they can't get the basics right, then all the philosophising in the world won't help them whether they are in office or not.