This is the most socially liberal Conservative government in history

On Saturday, David Gauke ended his column on this site by mentioning two groups of people on the centre-right: small state free marketeers and One Nation social liberals.  It would be easy to assume that both groups automatically cohere.  But they don’t.

Here’s why.  Those who support free markets will also believe in a small state.  And the same holds the other way round.  However, backing for One Nation and for social liberalism isn’t similarly, automatically aligned (not that David was suggesting that it is).  As a glance back at recent history shows.

One Nation Toryism has been associated with two main causes during the past 50 years.  The first was Keynesianism.  The left of the Conservative Party, with which the One Nation tradition is broadly associated, was hostile to monetarism.

Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 Budget marked the apex of the Tory struggle between the two schools, was a monetarist work from beginning to end, and paved the way for a decade of privatisation, supply-side economic reform, and Thatcherism.

The second has been Europeanism – that’s to say, support for European Community and European Union membership.  Its peak moment was the Single European Act of 1986.  Its trough was the 2016 EU referendum.  The climb back may not come for a long time, if ever.

You may think that there’s no necessary connection between a concern for the unity of the nation, with a particular focus on the disadvantaged, and a school of economics that had run out of answers to the problem of inflation.  But the fact remains that most One Nation conservatives were Keynesians of some kind.

Edward Heath, Peter Walker, Jim Prior, Ian Gilmour, Francis Pym, and the high priest of the school, Harold Macmillan, elevated to the Lords during the mid-1980s: all were suspicious at least and hostile at most to the monetarist experiment.

You may also believe that it is a contradiction in terms for One Nation Tories to believe in supernational government, at least as far as the UK is concerned.  But that wing of the party was almost entirely united in endorsing UK membership of the EU.

We give you Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Chris Patten, Douglas Hurd, Nicholas Soames and Damian Green, more or less off the top of our heads.  There is the odd outrider among the younger generation, such as Richard Fuller.  But almost all the One Nation branch of the Conservative Party voted Remain four years ago.

There is no such unity of purpose among One Nation Tories when it comes to social liberalism – unless that is defined to be broad support for the changed social attitudes of the past quarter century or so.  Support for which would now reach across not just nearly all One Nation Conservatives but most of the Party as a whole.

If social conservatism means a sympathy for stronger families, preserving custom and tradition, an instinct for the place of faith in society and a concern for community, then some of its supporters can certainly be found on the One Nation wing of the party.

Let’s take same sex marriage as a litmus test.  Tory MPs who voted against it included: Tony Baldry, Robert Buckland, David Burrowes, Alan Haselhurst, David Lidington, Nicky Morgan, Andrew Selous and Robert Walter.  All of these were or are party centre-lefters.

You don’t like that vote, now seven years old, as an indicator?  Then consider the discreetly-operating Social Justice Caucus of Conservative Parliamentarians.  The MP who heads it up is Iain Duncan Smith – not a man usually associated with the Left of the Conservative Party.

But many of its leading members have been of a different outlook.  Burrowes, who wrote recently on this site that the Government should show more compassion to refugees, is very much a One Nation Tory by inclination.  So is Andrew Selous, who has written on ConservativeHome about the limits of markets.

Or consider a prominent new MP who is the epitome of a One Nation conservative – Danny Kruger.  Here he is on this site earlier this year, proclaiming that “our focus is on neither the individual nor the state, but on what lies between them”.  He was prominent in the recent revolt against the Government’s liberalising divorce reforms.

That might almost be a definition of the One Nation conservatism of the One Nation group founded post-war by Angus Maude.  (For further details, start with Alastair Lexden.)  Other members included Iain Macleod, Robert Carr, Cub Alport, Gilbert Longden and Enoch Powell.

We apologise to those who find these intra-Tory distinctions tedious or even meaningless.  They have a point.  Is it useful or even correct, for example, to place Duncan Smith, social justice warrior that he is, on the right of the Conservative Party?

Tory MPs in particular tend to dislike these categories, especially in our experience if they are on the party’s centre-left, perhaps because politicians like to leave themselves a little wriggle room.  But they are nonetheless unavoidable in politics.  Parties have their left and right wings, and one must strive to make sense of them.

In any event, we think we have provided enough evidence to prove our point: that there is no necessary connection between One Nation conservatism and social liberalism.  For those who find it slight, we add another: talking of social liberalism, this is surely the most social liberal Conservative government in history.

For evidence, we give you: those divorce law changes, which remove fault from our legal framework and make divorce automatic if a party to a marriage says it has broken down.  The decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland – leaving that part of the United Kingdom with some of the most permissive laws in the world.

Immigration?  Boris Johnson has just committed to a pathway to citizenship for three million Hong Kongers.  The rainbow flag flies above government buildings; it decorated the Prime Minister’s Twitter account for a month.  To be sure, it is taking a more restrictive position on trans.

But the trans debate is sui generis.  Unlike these other subjects, it divides the left – hence the antipathy between “trans and terfs” – that’s to say, trans rights activists and trans-exclusionary radical feminists.  The poster woman for the latter is J.K.Rowling, whose politics are certainly not centre-right.

Essentially, the trans argument is an intra-liberal one.  Few Conservatives, with the exception of the authors of our fortnightly Radical column, have yet taken much of an interest in it.  In any event, Liz Truss is writing to Conservative MPs about the Government’s committment “to end the vile practice of so-called conversion therapy”.

Whatever you think of all these changes and policies, they add up to a body of socially liberal change bigger than that of any Tory government to date.  Which is as one would expect from one led by Boris Johnson – social liberal as he is to his fingertips. He may be clad in the right, white and blue of Brexit, but he is brandishing the rainbow flag.

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Author: Paul Goodman


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