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May 11, 2010

David Cameron would do best to ignore Phillip Blond - Red Tory is an ungenerous book which is hysterical in its diagnosis and unrealistic and un-Tory in its solutions, argues Richard D. North: Red Tory - Phillip Blond

Posted by Richard D. North

Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It
by Phillip Blond
Pp. 309. London: Faber & Faber, 2010
Paperback, £12.99

Phillip Blond is the leading proponent of a basket of ideas which might be called the Big Society solution for Broken Britain. All in all, then, he may not be much enjoying May 2010. After all, it is reported that David Cameron found these themes played badly in the heat of electoral battle and dropped his erstwhile enthusiasm for them, much to the chagrin of Steve Hilton, his chief re-brander and a great fan of the kind of social responsibility which is first cousin to Big Society.

I have no idea how important Phillip Blond actually was or will be to David Cameron's thinking. I have read that Oliver Letwin, a cerebral Cameron lieutenant, also likes the Big Society kind of talk, and he may have developed it on his own. Similarly, Philippa Stroud (a leading Christian Tory and failed 2010 parliamentary candidate), and her Centre for Social Justice, have been influential and may not have needed Phillip Blond as a source of ideas and ideals.

Still, Phillip Blond is by far the best-known guru of this sort of thinking.

There may be someone who could read his book at a clip and with something like pleasure. I battled with sleep and irritation as I ploughed through it. Was it worth it? At the very least, it is a curiosity. One carries on - I think fruitlessly - to find out what David Cameron sees in it all. At the very best, one sometimes finds oneself nodding not merely in sleep but with a sense that Mr Blond is on the money. He is right, for instance, to stress that what ails our society is ethos. To that extent, structures matter less than strictures. If enough people understand how they have failed themselves, their families and their society, we can fix much of what's gone wrong. That's fine so far as it goes, but Mr Blond's uninspiring romanticism seems well short of a solution for the worst of modern Britain.

Mr Blond's too miserable
Anyway, Mr Blond is far too despondent about modern British society, which isn't in general broken. At the micro and macro scale, from the state of the nation to the state of the family, his misery is a bit preachy, thin and prissy. This is Britain for God's sake: we are never very long on rectitude and are always a bit hooliganish. Sure, there's a generalised cynicism which needs fixing, but it's a bit dispiriting, not terminal. And sure, there are too many single mothers, but many of them are highly respectable and responsible according to their lights. The underclass, that's a whole other thing.

But I am most at odds with Mr Blond at the epicentre of his argument. He insists that liberalism has (in its individualism) been at war with virtue (which in his book is communal). In effect, he wants us all to be bossed about (supported and succoured) by "a radical localism" composed of an "associative mutualism". I prefer to insist that we can put "good" Enlightenment liberalism to work against "bad" Baby-boomer liberalism. Indeed, I prefer either to Mr Blond's adored medieval virtue and goodness, for all they seem to come shrouded in glowing velvet and scented with sandalwood. I certainly think it would be a huge mistake to erect new street-level power structures intended to deliver virtue but producing just another layer of authority in need of vigilance.

Putting Mr Blond's case briefly
In a nutshell, we find Mr Blond assuming the whole of society suffers a horrible malaise and that it can be fixed only by mass, radical, self-healing communitarianism. I would say rather that there is a profound crisis at the bottom of society amongst people who by definition are very unlikely to be able or willing to organise themselves into self-cure groups. The worst of the problem is too acute, too limited, and too urgent to be amenable to his proposed wholesale change. As a general prescription, I'd say his communitarian approach is un-British.

The mistake of the "two liberalisms"
Phillip Blond is modern and I think original in one core analysis. He says that post-Beetle, Baby-boomer, atomised, nihilist, consumerist individuals unsurprisingly condemned themselves to dependency on "the arid free market" and cruel "monopoly markets" (I think he means that the cash nexus is ubiquitous), but also "the tired statism" which is (as he is rare in noticing) surprisingly authoritarian. Whilst the masses were busy being selfish liberals, the state became activist. (This is different to the classic cases of Maurice Cowling and Isaiah Berlin, that liberalism gets bossy in the cause of its insistence that people use their freedom well.)

Mr Blond makes clear what he sees as a misunderstanding made by the politicians of both left and right in recent years. He isn't interested in the mitigating accommodations between state and market which were recommended by Harold Macmillan in the 1930s. He is miles away from the Third Way of Anthony Giddens which amounted to Tony Blair's creed.

Mr Blond despises these triangulations. But if he really is behind Mr Cameron's Big Society pitch, that says more about the unwisdom of Mr Cameron's thinking than the canniness of Mr Blond's.

Citizens UK, let alone other Tories, seem to be more workably interesting than Mr Blond. Indeed, it seems unlikely that many of Mr Blond's detailed prescriptions will be around when the dust settles.

The back story of Red Toryism
It is quite easy to anatomise Red Toryism, and to find that much of it is surprisingly unoriginal. I would have been much less impatient with this book if it had been a decent historical and literary formbook with a modest account of the author's claim to have modernised old lines of argument. As it is, one is constantly trying to pick the something old from the something new, and the something borrowed from the something blue.

Phillip Blond cites various people, usually in passing and seldom quoted. Others lurk, clearly in evidence but unacknowledged. Amongst the named golden oldies, we have Edmund Burke and William Cobbett, (the first radical Tory), and John Ruskin. Amongst almost-moderns we detect dollops of Maurice Cowling with his high culture and his historical yearning. But most importantly, we find aspects of Roman Catholic social thinking as rendered strikingly English by the "distributism" of Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton. I had never really come to grips with the political theorising of Belloc and Chesterton and now I glance at it, it seems pretty insubstantial. Phillip Blond is a fan of E P Thompson and seems to share a lot of the class-envy of Richard Hoggart (not noted Tories either of them).

It is perhaps odd that Phillip Blond doesn't acknowledge the two great papal encyclicals which pioneer in his territory, Rerum Novarum (1891) and Centesimus Annus (1991). (Philip Booth, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, has done the work of charting how a free market person might engage with the Vatican's version of social democracy.)

I also don't know why Phillip Blond doesn't talk more about religion in terms either of philanthropy or ethos. Granted that he was into theology and the anti-secularist Radical Orthodoxy before he became the Red Tory, you'd expect something on these subjects. The lack of religious discussion in the book is also peculiar granted that it is the Conservative Christian Fellowship and its cousin, the Centre for Social Justice, which have made the running both in describing (over-egging, I'd say) the Broken Society and in forcing the Cameroons into some pro-marriage policy. This last, by the way, looks useless in nudge terms and antediluvian in dog-whistle terms; even so, I think Phillip Blond should have said whether he approves of it.

Mutualism: modern or revivalist?
Roughly speaking, Mr Blond has put himself in line with a minority radical tradition (some of which does have some Tory support) which says that capitalist and individualist society has dissolved ancient social mechanisms which were once supportive and need to be reinvented. He seems, like plenty of romantics before him, to be harking back to the sort of world envisioned by William Morris (one of the first impeccably affluent and entrepreneurial socialists), in which the nice bits of an imagined medievalism were reinvented. He nods towards guilds (though not without an awareness that they were designed to be closed shops as much as pro bono institutions).

More to the point, he believes - it is his core message - in "mutualism". Again and again, he cites John Lewis as a triumph of social organisation, though he doesn't seem to notice that it is mutualism put politely at the service of middle class consumerism. He doesn't talk about the more humdrum (more socialist?) co-operative societies which had the advantage over John Lewis of being co-owned by their customers.

Anyway, in common with a long line of Tory commentators, he says that the welfare state destroyed the mutuality by which his beloved, vibrant working classes once put together all manner of support mechanisms. Actually, whilst working class mutualism was important, it was so more for what it might have become than for what it had definitely achieved. Just as interesting was the early twentieth century's development of commercial insurance and pensions arrangements: itís those which might have blossomed had the welfare state not damaged them, and they still may. But Mr Blond won't allow that capitalists can do this good work: he always insists that it has to be co-operatives of one sort or another. I'd rather there'd been some thought along the lines of the Fortune At the Bottom of the Pyramid, by the late C K Prahalad.

Phillip Blond sees the modern state and market as equally brutal and dehumanising. He hates the state like a Thatcherite Tory might. But he doesn't like the market even as much as most social democrats manage to. In fact it passes the imagination how David Cameron and his ilk feel any empathy at all with a thinker whose hatred of the real world economy is as visceral as Mr Blond's. It is one thing to admire William Cobbett and even to claim his hatred of the Wen (The City plutarchy) as a sort of precursor, it is another to disparage and even seek to dismantle modern capitalism.

I am interested in the Romantic Tories who appeal to Mr Blond. I can see the merit of the dislike of the state and of vulgar materialism which binds Roger Scruton to Salisbury and Carlyle (none of whom figure in this book). (By they way, it's a mystery why Professor Scruton gets no mention in this book.) But I don't think you can tip out the pessimism and the belief in hierarchy which goes with all that tradition. And however much you cherry-pick the Peterhouse school, I don't think you ought to casually bolt on a great wedge of mutualism from Belloc and Chesterton without at least acknowledging the awkwardness of the fit.

Maybe a RedÖ. but a Tory?
All in all, it is hard to see the Toryism in Mr Blond. His general sense of the desirable society seems more like that of a green alternativist such as George Monbiot (or a Jonathan Porritt of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s). To that is bolted the economic wishful thinking of an Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation.

In short, I can't really see why Mr Blond isn't trying to return socialism to its reformist and mutualist roots rather than try to graft his dream on to the traditionalist and capitalistic stem of the Tories.

I know this is a tricky area. I am of the school of conservative who thinks there is very little we can't steal, co-opt and imitate in the course of fulfilling our destiny to govern Britain. On the whole we steal leftish policies which are too popular or successful to ignore. We don't tend to go bowling off after pipedreams. And even when we're out thieving, there comes a point where one has to say what one stands for, and it will be that the Tory is a realist who beyond positive ambitions has the negative one of seeking power to deny it to socialists because the left can neither create nor spend wealth well. I think Blond is right in most of his loathing of the welfare state and wrong in most of his loathing of the market. I have nothing against his mutualism, but I think the market will do good better work, quicker, whenever we get the state out of the way.

All in all then, Phillip Blond has written a rather ungenerous book which is hysterical in its diagnosis of his country and unrealistic and un-Tory as to solutions.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Cameron's Makeover Politics: Or Why Old Tory Stories Matter to Us All.

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"post-Beetle"? do you mean post-Beatle, or are you referring to people trading up to a larger VW marque?

Posted by: Teacup at May 14, 2010 08:55 AM
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