A few years back, Maurice Glasman, the academic and Labour peer, and Philip Blond, once described as “Cameron’s philosopher king” and founder and director of the think tank Respublica, would run sessions on “Red Toryism v Blue Labour” and how that were not all that far apart. The basic pitch was two pronged: one, social conservatism was a communitarian impulse and thus would operate best under a statist yet socially conservative government. I agree with this, by the way, even though I want a society that is the exact opposite to this. In other words, even though I disagreed with the world both Maurice and Blond wanted to create, their ideas were at least philosophically consistent, which in political discussion is bizarrely rare.
The second part of the pitch was that every party at the time that had any chance at power was essentially liberal. The Tories were now not only economically liberal, but had become socially liberal as well. While this was at least partly debatable, they had a point here, support for equal marriage from the leadership being a good example. The Lib Dems, in government at the time, were run by Orange Bookers and were socially and economically liberal as well. Ed Miliband was just a much more left-wing version of all this, wanting more state spending yet within a clearly socially liberal sphere of thinking.
Off the back of this assessment of the state of things, Maurice and Philip’s idea was that we needed a statist, old school conservative party, one that promised more public spending on front line services while being communitarian and patriotic (family, faith, flag), and against it, a vocally and obviously economically and socially liberal party that didn’t call itself “Conservative”. Again, I had some sympathy with this “Red Tory/Blue Labour” pitch, only in the sense in that it was coherent and the chance to join the economically and socially liberal party as described by them as the theoretical enemy sounded great to me.
Post-Brexit, the tables have turned completely: we now don’t have a liberal party that is anywhere close to power. While I don’t believe that being a Remainer is necessary to being a liberal by any means, the vote to Leave allowed Theresa May to come to power and she very quickly rolled back on both the economic and social liberalism of the Cameron years (although to be fair, the economic portion of that was mostly rhetoric only, the government’s financial plan remaining virtually unchanged in real terms). A Tory PM talking about gay marriage as being in line with conservative values had been replaced with one who talked about “citizens of nowhere”. This happened while the Labour Party voted in a truly socialist leader for the second time, one who had never had any truck with liberalism other than elements of it that had become so embedded in the Left’s worldview (LGBT rights, for instance) there was no escaping them.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are both a million miles away from power – and not nearly as liberal in any real sense as they once were. The Orange Book philosophy has been replaced with a soggy mixture of left libertarianism and paternal statism that doesn’t hang together at all (thus, the 7% poll ratings).
All of this has led many commentators on the Right, most of whom want the government to pursue more economically liberal policies while somehow distancing themselves from liberalism entirely at the same time, to declare liberalism dead. But I don’t think this is sustainable, anymore than I think you could ever eliminate conservatism from any body politic. Liberalism and Conservatism are the ying and the yang of politics – anytime one of them looks truly dead in the water, there is always a correction. I have no idea what the liberal correction will look like, or when it will happen, but it will at some point. Some of those on the Right dancing on liberalism’s false grave at present may even like the look of it when it does.