(This post was first published by Hackery Blog on 13 June 2011.)
An assertion often made is that the Conservative Party is full of Progressive Conservatives who are, well, not particularly conservative. As a liberal-leaning, One Nation moderate, I strongly support this strand of conservatism. However, I agree that the concept, at first glance, seems contradictory. What are these Conservatives trying to conserve, and how are they progressive?
Let’s start with the conserving part of the question. If the Conservatives are trying to conserve, then surely they must be opposed to change? Maybe not.
Firstly, Conservatives are not necessarily opposed to change. They tend to support slow, cautious change. Conservatives are pragmatic enough to embrace the fact that attitudes and beliefs change over time. Conservatives aren’t against change per se, but against rapid, potentially ill-considered change.
Secondly, Conservatives also tend to stand against social engineering. Change should be the genuine result of a society looking within itself and changing its view over a generation. Conservatives believe that the social change should come before the legislation – although, or course, reality is rarely that simple and the two are often intertwined.
Thirdly, what the Conservatives are trying to conserve is not a set of opinions, but a process. One of the most fundamental Conservative values is pragmatism. Another is caution. There’s no such thing as a Conservative view, only a Conservative approach.
If that is what the Conservatives are conserving, then in what way are they progressive?
Firstly, the Conservatives are not radical, but they recognise and solidify a level of progress. Politics thrives on radical ideas and people who suggest blue sky, out of the box, radical thinking. This is balanced by the pragmatic politicians, who pick apart the ideas and throw away those which won’t work. That’s the role of the Conservatives – to be pragmatic, to come in and discard the really crazy ideas. For every few outlandish ideas there’s a good one, one which will work, one which should be kept, one which probably would never have been discovered without the radical input. This is the progress that the Conservatives make.
Secondly, Conservatives see progress not as the work of law-makers, but of society. Without a vision of a utopia there is no ultimate goal to work towards, but there can be progress towards consensus. Conservatives handle the relationship between the state and society carefully, trying not to let the former have too much effect on the latter. If society is forming a consensus around an issue then Conservatives seek to protect that consensus – that progress.
The Conservatives are therefore progressive in two ways – because they recognise pragmatic progression and because they progress towards social consensus. Progressive Conservatism isn’t an oxymoron. It’s a form of cautious progress towards a social consensus, using a tried and tested pragmatic Conservative approach.
I’ve written this post not in an effort to convert people, but to explain my thinking. If course, many Conservatives are socially conservative, and do not identify as progressive. That’s fine. But it is perfectly possible to be both progressive and Conservative.