I have written a fair degree lately about the differences (or lack thereof) between the Liberals and the Conservatives. I haven't elaborated a great deal on specific policy issues in part because I really think that policies are often over-emphasized in that kind of debate because the Liberal party so often campaigns from left of Centre and governs from right of centre, and the Cons thus far have done their most damage in non-legislative ways. I think the most important areas of overlap between the Cons and the Liberals are environmental policies, foreign policies, Israel (at least with Ignatieff as leader), tax policy, and though the Liberals have made a big deal about healthcare, neither party has a very solid record of defending universalism on this file. The Liberals have also supported the Conservative government on a number of important labour issues over the past few years. These are all important issues in which I feel that the Liberals are so far right that I don't particularly trust them over the Conservatives. On the other hand, the Liberals have made some efforts on a number of issues that have been important. Their efforts for universal childcare was something the Cons would never have done, as well as their efforts in the Kelowna accord, and let's face it if the Liberals had not been in office from the early 90s to mid 00s we would still be fighting for gay marriage in the courts (and I think the Cons may have attempted to use the so-called notwithstanding clause to stop gay marriage).
But regardless of all of these differences and similarities, there is an important conceptual difference between most Liberals and most Conservatives that I think should not be overlooked. And that difference is that in my personal experience Liberals usually engage in actual political discourse while Conservatives just have no interest in discourse. Conservatives ruthlessly pursue a corporatist, and reactionary agenda regardless of any notion of facts, and their agenda often completely contradicts their stated moral positions. Most Conservatives have no interest in a society of equality, justice, freedom, or prosperity. Instead they want society to reflect some twisted notion of social Darwinism. Most of them naively believe that if they pursue a Conservative agenda they will have a society that is more or less a 'meritocracy' and that those who are not worthy will get more or less what they deserve. Now, besides the fact that Conservative policies are not at all about social Darwinsim, merit based achievement, or their greatest fantasy, the "free-Market," rank and file Conservative supporters are deluded into believing this spin, while the wealthy and conservative leaders are just laughing at the naivety of their supporters who have been more or less duped into supporting an agenda that talks about 'freedoms,' 'markets,' and a 'natural order,' while pursuing policies that ensure that the rich get richer and the entire social order and legal system favours those who already have money and power.
But you cannot talk to Conservatives about these issues because most don't even have the vaguest idea what is actually going on; they don't begin to understand the social and economic relations of society, they have little notion of the modern history of conservatism, and, despite their fervent support of it, they haven't the slightest notion of how their treasured 'market' is actually working. On the other hand, I think many small "l" as well as large "L" liberals understand many of the basics of the social relations under which they live and function. Most liberals understand that there is no such thing as a "free-market," that the economic system as it exists heavily favours those who already have wealth and power, that a modern government has to go to fairly great lengths to ensure anything like equality of opportunity, and society only works because of a fundamental human cooperation. And even Liberals who don't entirely endorse these positions, can discuss them with a degree of enlightenment and interest. I have even heard a powerful and wealthy man like Paul Martin discuss such issues with what seems like a genuine interest in justice and equality. On the other hand, even a vague suggestion of these issues elicits ridiculous charges of Bolshevism from hopelessly misinformed Conservatives. This discursive and ideological difference between Conservatives and Liberals should not be overlooked even by the most radical among us because it addresses the important differences in outlook from way back in the days of English Whigs and Tories.
When one looks back to the late 18th century when the modern political identities were created and defined, the pitch battles between the great Charles James Fox and William Pitt demonstrated something essential about the difference between liberals and conservatives. Something that was central to Fox and the Whigs was that they knew that the revolution in France had come about because when people are treated horribly and live in wretched conditions they will eventually revolt. Fox knew that you simply could not keep supporting the system of exploitation and suppression without some serious political and social results. Pitt and the ensuing generations of Toryies really seemed to believe that the inequalities in society were a result of some kind of natural order or natural selection and they thought that they could maintain that order more or less forever. This didn't begin to change until the Red Tories led by George Canning (known as the Canningites) realized that reforms were at the very least necessary to the survival of Britain. Historically "red" Tories have been those Conservatives who have understood the ideological issues that I outlined above. And so-called red Toryism has occasionally become the dominent form of Conservatism in Britain, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations. Anyone who is familiar with men like Rab Butler and Harold Macmillan understands this basic issue.
In other words, there are, I believe, important historical and ideological differences between Liberals and Conservatives. Unfortunately we are now in a period of extreme Torysim and the Liberals have more or less gone along with the swing of this pendulum so the similarities between the two parties seem particularly distasteful to many on the left. But this pendulum swings on a regular historical basis and things will change again and the differences between Liberals and Conservatives will seem more significant and important, and the 'people' will benefit.
For my part, I continue to be far left of the Liberals and even left of the NDP. However, I think these historical and discursive issues need to be understood and talked about so that people can maintain, in Gramsci's words, an optimism of the will.