With nominations for Prospect’s Think Tank of the Year under way, we’ll be paying ever closer attention to wonky activity at Prospect, and yesterday it was DEMOS (once again) in the headlines. George Osborne spoke there, reframing an increasingly familiar refrain that “the torch of progressive politics has been passed to a new generation of politicians – and those politicians are Conservatives.” Its been written up as being fundamentally about tax, which has already ruffled a few feathers, for instance over at the Spectator. But three things surprised me:
First, there is obviously a sense that this was a cheap summer media hit – a slow day, some free headlines on the grid, and a rehash of previous ideas. But even so its interesting that the Tory high command still thinks their is mileage in the “progressive label”. Having rethought a whole bunch of policies in the aftermath of the crunch, and executed an occasionally unwilling move from sunshine to austerity Cameroonism, one might have thought that the “progressive” label would also have been junked (along with sharing the proceeds of growth) as surplus to requirements. Indeed, one might even have expected it.
Second, its especially surprising, to me at least, that it was Osborne himself who made the speech. I ran into him once in a radio studio, where we was sceptical about the use of the phrase progressive, and especially about the “red Tory” theories, popularised by DEMOS (and also, in a way, by Prospect). The received wisdom is that Osborne is the more orthodox liberal in the Cameron / Osborne pairing. So the fact that he did the speech persuades me that the label progressive (along, for instance with sticking with Andrew Lansley on the NHS despite increasing pressure to shift him) is part of a long term strategy, which hasn’t changed because of the credit crunch. Underneath this must lie a fear that the detoxification process is not yet complete, or could be reversed.
Third, and most importantly, i was surprised by how different this speech was from previous efforts to construct a “progressive conservatism” narrative. Look at Cameron’s speech at the launch of the progressive conservatism project at DEMOS, or for instance this interview Oliver Letwin gave to leftist academic Alan Finlayson—both stress the mantra of conservative means to achieve progressive ends. But the new speech was different: a greater focus on fiscal responsibility, a new argument that fiscal responsibility is the pro-poor option, nothing specifically about “progressive ends”, and very little focus on some of the language on green issues or general well-being which often peppers Cameron’s speeches. Underlying this are two things. First, it is increasingly clear that the old Letwin argument about there being a consensus on “progressive ends”, if understood as being about the scope (if not the precise role) of the state, no longer holds in an era of shrinking budgets and government debt. Second, the more contested the label “progressive”, the more meaningless it becomes.