Red Tory intrigues and infuriates
Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian
Phillip Blond was an unknown theology lecturer in Cumbria 18 months ago; now he has had the front cover of Prospect, been profiled in many national newspapers and on radio as one of Cameron’s key thinkers, signed up with Demos, fallen out with Demos and set up his own thinktank. It’s been a busy year and now he has brought out his book, Red Tory, published yesterday.
Blond has intrigued and infuriated in equal measure – and his book will do likewise. Blond is a man for big ideas, sweeping statements and the grand historical overview. His key selling point is the way he bundles together the unexpected: a passion for social justice alongside an instinctive social conservatism. He wants the family back but he also wants to get rid of the gross inequality of the last two decades.
The consequence is that he has no obvious audience, no ready constituency for his ideas. Everyone at some point in his argument is going to get uncomfortable; Tories will flinch at his steely eyed demolition job on the Thatcher miracle mythology and the progressive left will loathe his denunciation of 60s sexual permissiveness and how it destroyed working-class family life.
But such is the bland predictability of British politics, the territory of managerialised soundbite, that the appetite continues for Blond’s intellectual equivalent of a firework display (think catherine wheels with sparks flying off in every direction). The money allegedly poured in for his new thinkthank ResPublica, and Blond’s diary bulges with appointments. Cameron’s team may keep him at a distance but they lavish praise on him as a useful thinker making the case. In his book, Blond is careful to return the compliment, describing two Cameron speeches last year as laying the basis for a civic Conservatism that is ‘re-mapping the centre ground of British politics’. The book could be construed as a very long job application as intellectual outrider for a Cameron in Downing Street.
Blond is best on his analysis of how civil society has been squeezed out between an increasingly intrusive, authoritarian state and an invasive market capitalism. By civil society, he means, all those associations, organisations and institutions distinct from market and state such as trade unions, local government, churches and co-ops. Rather overstating his case, he maintains that none of them operate in an effective independent way. But the more general point stands: those associational activities whereby people could develop an understanding of their power to effect change and to shape their communities have been hollowed out.
Rare for a Tory, he acknowledges that this is a process in which Thatcherism played a key role. There are plenty of other thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum in this territory now, aware of how power has been concentrated and centralised over the last two decades in the state and in what Blond rightly calls ‘monopoly capitalism’. But what will infuriate many on the left is that he pins as much blame on the welfare state set up by ‘a middle-class elite partly to relieve poverty but also to deprive the poor of their habits of autonomous organisation’. It was the welfare state that destroyed ‘vivid communal life of the urbanised working class’. Instead of providing a safety net, it became a ceiling, trapping the working class in a benefits culture. And Blond takes the argument further by accusing the 60s sexual revolution of destroying working-class family life.
To those critics who will accuse him of romanticism and nostalgia, his defiant reply is the first page of the introduction: things were better in the past, and it’s not nostalgic to say so. But it takes him several chapters to get to the core of his complaint: the loss of a British culture of virtue. That’s why he wrote the book, he declares two-thirds of the way in, and the culprit for this crime is middle-class liberalism.
‘Liberalism promoted a radical individualism, which in trashing the supposed despotism of custom and tradition concerning the true nature of human flourishing has produced a vacated, empty self that believes in no common values or inherited creeds’ and in such a way militates against associational solidarity. Other people are only perceived as restrictions on individual freedom rather than part of the web of social relationships on which we depend – and in which our freedom is embedded. The outcome of atomised individualism is paradoxically the development of an authoritarian state, which is the only agency by which to regulate and police the rights of individuals.
He calls for the restoration of an account of the common good, a shared moral and social belief so that the first question a citizen asks of herself is not how do I ensure my own pleasures but how do I look out for the needs of another. This is idealistic stuff at the heart of his ‘Communitarian Conservatism’ but one increasingly senses that it is theology which really underpins the argument, and that Bond is being coy about his own Anglicanism. ‘Inherited creed’ is as close as he comes to really offering an argument for a revival of Christianity.
His argument veers off periodically into riffs. So he lambasts the ‘governing elites – BBC, parliament, banks, social services, education – which have produced the culture that has destroyed our financial system, caused ethos and professionalism to haemorrhage, produced expensive politicians, laid waste the traditions that are, or were, the cultural bedrock of our country.’
Such rants (how he attributes this kind of power to social services, it’s hard to see) put him squarely into the oddball tradition of radical Toryism to which he lays claim. Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, (he even bravely references Enoch Powell although quickly dissociates himself from the racism) were men of moral fervour and outraged passion. He offers a shopping list of remedies – asset transfer, associations to run commonly used welfare services, community land trusts, relocalising the economy – but one wonders if the people most likely to implement these ideas will have been so antagonised by Blond’s sweeping intellectual critique, that they will have given up and wandered off to collaborate with one of the many other thinkers working in this territory.