Evidence based conservatism
Ever since the Conservative party decided that it needed to ‘change to win’ we have had successive attempts to find a name or a brand that would help to define that transition. Off the top of my head I can think of ‘compassionate conservatism’, ‘liberal conservatism’, ‘a return to One Nation conservatism’ and, most recently, ‘modern conservatism’. Not unfairly many, especially critics from the left, reacted to the use of the term progressive conservatism by adding it to a long-list of projects and ideas that had failed to catch on for the party. It was dismissed as another fad, dreamt up in Notting Hill and exported downwards by Cameron and chums.
Today David Willetts gave a speech at Demos, as part of our Politics 2010 lecture series, which attempted to deliver the meat on the branding bones of progressive conservatism. He’s not the first senior Tory to do so, not even the first to do so at Demos (we’ve had David Cameron and George Osborne do the same), but he did deliver what I believe is the most complete explanation yet.
For Willetts the progressive element of his politics is founded in a developed sensitivity to evidence that, for many more traditional conservatives, was previously subjugated to tradition and dogma. That is not to say that he has abandoned his conservative principles – he gave a passionate defence of the role of institutions in developing social good for instance – but rather an openness to the importance of proof for things in which you believe and, therefore, the possibility of being proven wrong sometimes as well.
The example that Willetts gave, to dispel the suspicion that the Tories (like New Labour before them) are only interested in evidence when it backs them up, was an issue that is close to my heart. Willetts spoke powerfully of how he had come to believe that, in contrast to the Free Marketeer principles of his political birth, inequality could be a problem in and of itself. This admission, essentially that the Thatcherite case for an unequal society was misguided, is an exceptionally brave acceptance of proof (as produced over the last ten years) over dogma. It is a case I recently made in the Demos pamphlet Everyday Equality, for which Willetts wrote the foreword, and one which should help to reassure that conservatives are open to evidence even when it makes for uncomfortable reading.
So, for Willetts and for his legions of progressive conservative followers, evidence is a key feature of the new Toryism. The real difficulty, of course, comes when applying this principle to the policies that they pursue. On this issue we will all be watching carefully; the proof, after all, is in the pudding.