‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

05 February 2009

The Liberal Conceit of Progressive Conservatism

In an article published yesterday on the New Statesman website, Oliver Letwin, chairman of the Conservative Research Department (UK) asks, ‘How liberal is progressive Conservatism?’ If nothing else, it’s very curious that the British have taken up this nomenclature several years after it was dropped—unceremoniously—in Canada.

Letwin describes progressive conservatism in glowing terms; as a purportedly novel undertaking within conservatism, one may well ask what it is meant to replace within the Tory lexicon? A natural response may be ‘Thatcherism’, but only if a form of 90s centralisation comes to mind, since economic liberalism is very much at the heart of what it is taken to be a progressive conservative. In this respect, then, ‘progressive’ seems to have less to do with conservatism per se than with the current state of British politics—notably, as Letwin remarks, an increasingly authoritarian centre-left—and may account for their motto of ‘progressive ends by conservative means’.

Addressing the ‘allegation that progressive Conservatism is illiberal because it emphasises the community rather than the liberty of the individual’, Letwin sets out to answer the eponymous question of his title in the affirmative. I won’t ruin the reader’s own pleasure in following the threads of the argument based upon recent speeches by party leader, David Cameron, but will provide an alternative viewpoint on the individual-versus-community from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.

A primary tenet of CST is that the person, created in the image and likeness of God—imago dei—is free, rational, and absolute. People do not exist in isolation, however, but are, as Aristotle famously said, political and social animals. We begin in families, that join together to form communities, that in turn grow to become the city-state. This ascending pyramid—in form, if not always in intent—is a common conservative starting point: A central Cameron belief is that ‘we achieve progressive aims through decentralising responsibility and power to individuals, communities and civic institutions’.

Thomas Aquinas, building upon these Greek ideas of the state as the culmination of political association, wrote that ‘it is evident that all who are included in a community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to a whole, so that whatever is the good of a part can be directed to the good of the whole (Summa Theologiae, II-II.58.5, c).’

Herein lies the apparent contradiction: the absolute person versus the relative individual who is the part in the whole—But only if one ignores the reality of everyday life, where one can be a member of a family, employed in a particular profession, co-operate in affairs of civil society, and still enjoy independent initiatives and actions. This is the essence of the personalist principle.

As Pius XII wrote in Mystici Corporis Christi,

‘In a natural body the principle of unity unites the parts in such a manner that each lacks in its own individual subsistence... Moreover, if we examine the relations existing between the several members and the whole body, in every physical, living body, all the different members are ultimately destined to the good of the whole alone; while if we look to its ultimate usefulness, every moral association of men is in the end directed to the advancement of all in general and of each single member in particular; for they are persons (§61).’

If the autonomy of the person is still in doubt, the principle of subsidiarity firmly establishes that ‘Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, §79).’

In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II further defined subsidiarity: ‘a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good (§48).’ These may be considered its negative and positive functions: i) no interference into matters that directly concern individual and local actors, and ii) intervening only in periods of distress (and then only until equilibrium has been restored). As an echo of subsidiarity, Cameron is in no doubt of the responsibility ‘for government to act wherever possible to strengthen the institutions of civic society’.

The organic strength of these principles, personalism and subsidiarity, is that both the person and the community are given free rein to develop and realise their potential collaboratively—without drifting into the extremes, respectively, of libertarianism or statism—for the common good.

This is, ultimately, Letwin’s own conclusion: ‘The answer is that progressive Conservatism does not promote the group over the individual; what it seeks to do, is to balance the liberty of the community and the liberty of the individual.’

Yet I cannot help but wonder, so earnest are the efforts on behalf of this liberal conceit—‘Liberals attach value to both of these kinds of liberty, and the fact that progressive Conservatism does so, places it in the mainstream of liberalism’—what it is that is specifically ‘conservative’ (or Tory) in the progressive Conservative mandate. Or, again, what role in the progressive Conservative programme is assigned to the state (save as a last resort).

CST acknowledges the legitimacy of the state in realising a more equitable society: an achievement of the pivotal document in the nineteen-century capital-labour question, Rerum Novarum. Nor is this untrod territory for traditional conservatism, whether in the practice of Disraeli’s ‘One-Nation Toryism’ or in the support for the fundamentals of the welfare state, such as universal healthcare and education, by Churchill and Macmillan.

Nevertheless, Letwin, Cameron, and their progressive Conservative approach are opening an exciting avenue for modern politics, one which shares many affinities with organic Toryism. While this Tory stance is more amenable to State action than is the norm at present, there is much room for ongoing dialogue about ‘progressive ends by conservative means’ and harmonising the individual and the community.

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