Guardian asks, ‘Are the Tories progressives now?’ A nation replies, ‘Have you gone mad?’

by Stephen Tall on September 10, 2008

Here are the opening sentences of today’s Guardian editorial:

There have been moments in the postwar history of Britain when people who would naturally be inclined to vote Labour have been driven to ask themselves whether the return of a Conservative government would be the worst possible outcome for the country or for the general cause of progress? For those in Britain who think of themselves as progressives, the answer has usually been an unhesitating yes. Nevertheless there is a reasonable and sober body of historical work which reaches the judgment that there have, indeed, been times when Labour has deserved to lose.

We may be approaching another moment for difficult questions.

In one respect, the Guardian makes a fair point: yes, absolutely there have been times when Labour deserved to lose. The 2005 general election was a case in point, when Tony Blair sought a fresh mandate after having led this country into the most disastrous foreign policy debacle in 50 years with the backing of his supine party. But, three years ago, the Guardian’s position was most accurately summarised by Polly Toynbee urging the newspaper’s readership to “put a peg on your nose” and vote for Labour.

But there is a rather credulous note to the Guardian editorial. They blandly put up an Aunt Sally argument that the Tories are sincere in their belief that their policies will “address progressive issues such as social mobility and poverty”. Few would accuse the Tories of lacking sincerity; but few in the Lib Dems would believe the Tory party at large has changed much, regardless of David Cameron’s statements of yore that he’s a “liberal Conservative”.

For example, on civil liberties, Europe and embryology and abortion there is little sign that the Tory party’s views have changed one iota. As James Graham has frequently pointed out, under Mr Cameron any issue that looks controversial is made a free vote, allowing the Tory leadership to strike a progressive pose, while their reactionary backbenchers vote as you would expect. The tactic appears to have warmed the cockles of the Guardian, but most of us will heed the warning of the Telegraph back in June:

The majority of new Conservative candidates selected to fight the next election are unabashed supporters of Margaret Thatcher’s ideals, a new survey has disclosed. They advocate lower taxes and are more concerned about terrorism than global warming. There is also still a very strong anti-European Union bias among Tory candidates. The future MPs also advocate an expansion in nuclear power, something the party under David Cameron’s leadership has been very reluctant to back.

Finally, a quick reminder to the Guardian – just because the Labour party has run out of steam and turned its back on progressive politics doesn’t mean the Tories have become the default option of progressives.