British Politics

, Volume 10, Issue 2, pp 131–147 | Cite as

Cameron’s Conservative Party, social liberalism and social justice

  • Richard HaytonEmail author
  • Libby McEnhill
Original Article


Social liberalism has consistently been highlighted as arguably the defining feature of David Cameron’s project to modernise the Conservative Party. However, this article challenges the perception that modernisation has fundamentally transformed the position of social liberalism in contemporary conservatism, questioning the extent to which the Conservatives under Cameron have deviated from their socially conservative Thatcherite ideological inheritance. Two key aspects of social liberalism are explored: an inclusive approach to ‘equality issues’, and a commitment to the idea of positive freedom or ‘freedom to’. The extent to which positioning under Cameron’s leadership has reflected these themes is then considered in relation to two flagship ‘modernised’ policy areas. The first is the issue of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, and the second is the party’s approach to poverty and social justice. We suggest that Cameron’s success in transforming Conservative attitudes and policies in a socially liberal direction has been very limited, challenging the widespread characterisation of the Coalition as a fundamentally ‘liberal’ government.


Conservative Party modernisation David Cameron social liberalism social justice conservatism 



The authors would particularly like to thank Matt Beech, Kate Dommett and Peter Munce for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article.


  1. Barry, B. (2005) Why Social Justice Matters. Cambridge, UK: Polity.Google Scholar
  2. BBC (2005) Cameron seeking ‘social justice’, BBC News [online], 7 December,, accessed 5 September 2014.
  3. Bale, T. and Webb, P. (2014) Not as bad as we feared or even worse than we imagined? Assessing and explaining conservative party members’ views on coalition. Political Studies (Early View) doi: 10.1111/1467-9248.12164.Google Scholar
  4. Beech, M. (2011) A tale of two liberalisms. In: S. Lee and M. Beech (eds.) The Cameron-Clegg Government. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 267–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boles, N. (2013) Which party should a liberal vote for in 2015? Speech to Bright Blue, 19 November,
  6. Buckler, S. and Dolowitz, D. (2000) Theorizing the third way: New labour and social justice. Journal of Political Ideologies 5 (3): 301–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cameron, D. (2005) Creating Wealth and Eliminating Prosperity: At Home and Abroad. London, UK: Centre for Policy Studies.Google Scholar
  8. Cameron, D. (2006a) Modern conservatism. Speech at Demos, 30 January.Google Scholar
  9. Cameron, D. (2006b) Speech to the Conservative Party Conference, Bournemouth, 4 October.Google Scholar
  10. Cameron, D. (2006c) David Cameron: Tackling poverty is a social responsibility,, accessed 5 September 2014.Google Scholar
  11. Cameron, D. (2011a) Full transcript: Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2011, Manchester, 5 October,, accessed 14 May 2014.
  12. Cameron, D. (2011b) PM’s speech on big society, 15 February,, accessed 8 September 2014.Google Scholar
  13. Cameron, D. (2013) Leader’s speech, Conservative Party Conference, Manchester, 2 October., accessed 3 January 2015.
  14. Campbell, R. and Childs, S. (2015) Conservatism, feminisation and the representation of women in UK politics. British Politics 10 (2).Google Scholar
  15. Carter, N. and Clements, B. (2015) From ‘Greenest government ever’ to ‘get rid of all the green crap’: David Cameron, the Conservatives and the environment. British Politics 10 (2).Google Scholar
  16. Clements, B. (2014) Partisan attachments and attitudes towards same-sex marriage in Britain. Parliamentary Affairs 67 (1): 232–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Conservative Party (2010) Invitation to Join the Government of Britain. London: Conservative Party.Google Scholar
  18. Cowley, P. and Stuart, M. (2013) Cambo Chained: Dissension amongst the Coalition’s Parliamentary Parties, 2012–2013: A Data Handbook. Briefing Paper:
  19. Denham, A. and O’Hara, K. (2007) The three ‘mantras’: ‘Modernization’ and the Conservative Party. British Politics 2 (2): 167–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) (2013) Policy: Helping troubled families turn their lives around,, accessed 8 September 2014.Google Scholar
  21. Dorey, P. (2007) A new direction or another false dawn? David Cameron and the crisis of British conservatism. British Politics 2 (2): 137–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dorey, P. (2010) British Conservatism: The Politics and Philosophy of Inequality. London: IB Tauris.Google Scholar
  23. Duncan Smith, I. (2012a) The GovKnow Conference: Social justice, transforming lives,, accessed 5 September 2014.Google Scholar
  24. Duncan Smith, I. (2012b) Speech at the Abbey Centre,, accessed 6 July 2014.Google Scholar
  25. Freeden, M. (1996) Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  26. Gamble, A. (2013) Economic libertarianism. In: M. Freeden, L. T. Sargent and M. Stears (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 405–421.Google Scholar
  27. Gilbert, A. (2014) From ‘pretended family relationship’ to ‘ultimate affirmation’: British conservatism and the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Paper presented to the Political Studies Association 64th Annual Conference, Manchester, 16 April.Google Scholar
  28. Hansard (Commons), 9 March (2011), vol. 524, col. 933.Google Scholar
  29. Hayton, R. (2010) Conservative Party modernisation and David Cameron’s politics of the family. Political Quarterly 81 (4): 492–500.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hayton, R. (2012) Reconstructing Conservatism? The Conservative Party in Opposition, 1997–2010. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hayton, R. and McEnhill, L. (2014) Rhetoric and morality – How the coalition justifies welfare policy. In: J. Atkins, A. Finlayson, J. Martin and N. Turnbull (eds.) Rhetoric in British Politics and Society. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 101–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Heppell, T. (2014) The Tories: From Winston Churchill to David Cameron. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  33. Heppell, T. and Hill, M. (2009) Transcending Thatcherism? Ideology and the Conservative Party leadership mandate of David Cameron. Political Quarterly 80 (3): 388–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hickson, K. (2009) Conservatism and the poor: Conservative Party attitudes to poverty and inequality since the 1970s. British Politics 4 (3): 346–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. HM Government (2012) Social Justice: Transforming Lives, CM 8314 London: Stationary Office.Google Scholar
  36. Letwin, O. (2002) For labour, there is no such thing as society, only the state. In: G. Streeter (ed.) There is Such a Thing as Society: Twelve Principles of Compassionate Conservatism. London: Politico’s.Google Scholar
  37. Lister, R. (2007) Where now for social justice? Benefits 15 (2): 113–125.Google Scholar
  38. MacInnes, T., Aldridge, H., Bushe, S., Kenway, P. and Tinson, A. (2013) Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013. York, UK: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.Google Scholar
  39. Mahon, R. (2008) Varieties of liberalism: Canadian social policy from the ‘golden age’ to the present. Social Policy and Administration 42 (4): 341–362.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Marquand, D. (1999) Premature obsequies: Social democracy comes in from the cold. Political Quarterly 70 (s1): 10–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Maude, F. (2013) No resting on our laurels. Juncture 20 (2): 144–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. May, T. (2002) Full text: Theresa May’s conference speech,, accessed 7 July 2014.
  43. Miller, D. (1999) Principles of Social Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Montgomerie, T. (2012) A conservative case for gay marriage. Conservative home blog, 6 February,, accessed 14 May 2014.
  45. Page, R. (2007) Revisiting the Welfare State. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Plant, R. (2009) The continuing relevance of social justice. In: K. Hickson and S. Griffiths (eds.) Party Politics and Ideology Under New Labour. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  47. Rawnsley, A. (2010) The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  48. Resolution Foundation (2013) Squeezed Britain 2013,, accessed 8 September 2014.
  49. Social Justice Policy Group (2006) The state of the nation report: Economic dependency,, accessed 5 September 2014.
  50. Streeter, G. (ed.) (2002) Conservatives must change in help the vulnerable. There is Such a Thing as Society: Twelve Principles of Compassionate Conservatism. London: Politico’s.Google Scholar
  51. Sylvester, R. (2005) Letwin: We will redistribute wealth. The Telegraph, 23 December,, accessed 5 September 2014.
  52. The Times (1998) ‘Mods and Rockers’, 6 July.Google Scholar
  53. Vincent, A. (1998) New ideologies for old? Political Quarterly 69 (1): 48–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Webb, P. and Bale, T. (2014) Why do tories defect to UKIP? Conservative Party members and the temptations of the populist radical right. Political Studies 62 (4): 961–970.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. West, D. (1998) Beyond social justice and social democracy: Positive freedom and cultural rights. In: D. Boucher and P. Kelly (eds.) Social Justice from Hume to Walzer. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  56. Willetts, D. (1992) Modern Conservatism. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  57. Yi, J. (2013) (Re)drawing the lines on marriage and sexuality. Political Quarterly 84 (4): 497–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Politics and International Studies, University of LeedsLeeds
  2. 2.School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Research, University of KentCanterbury

Personalised recommendations