Wednesday 25 November 2009

Everything you wanted to know about Red Toryism but were afraid to ask

The think-tank world welcomes a new arrival, as Red Tory thinker Phillip Blond will be joined by Conservative party leader David Cameron to launch the ResPublica tomorrow.

There is a small element of deja vu all over again here.

It is 10 months since Red Tory thinker Phillip Blond was joined by David Cameron to launch the progressive Conservative project at Demos in January this year.

And I think that the challenges set out in my analysis of Red Toryism as both an ideas and political project for Liberal Conspiracy 'Will the Red Tories spill blue blood?' remain very much on the table.

Cameron's promotion of Blond is causing some disquiet among the Tory frontbench, according to the Times today. But it is not entirely clear whether the problem is the anti-Thatcherite apostasy of Blond's localist and protectionist market-scepticism, or rather his unkempt hair, rather unkindly challenged in two separate articles by Francis Elliott and by Alice Thomson in the top people's paper today.

Next Left has not previously commented on the Blond top-mop, which we find endearingly floppy, preferring to engage with the Red Tory thesis at the level of ideas, as the ideological map shifts.

Here too there is a legitimate scepticism about how far the Blond agenda will influence policy, beyond political narrative and mood music.

A major issue is that Red Toryism is an almost absurdly ambitious philiosophical and political project.

It seeks to offer a profound critique of the welfare institutions created after 1945, the social changes of the 1960s and the economic changes of the 1980s. Blond has argued that he wants nothing less than the remoralisation of society, the relocalisation of the economy and the recapitalisation of the poor.

Blond's new medievalist advocacy of refashioning complex overlapping social and political relationships like those of the Middle Ages allowed me to make some perhaps excessively knockabout points about 14th century progressivism during our head-to-head debate at the Compass conference this summer, to which Phillip replied here.

The intellectual and theological influences on this agenda were accessibly set out in Jonathan Derbyshire's New Statesman profile, and by Theo Hobson for the Spectator.

Stuart White has challenged Blond's account of liberalism, as something of a straw man, while Blond stresses he is anti-liberal but not illiberal.

It may be harder to see the contemporary politics of this, particularly from a Cameroonian perspective.

The critique of social liberalism may go against the grain of the Tory mods' drive to get their party to adapt to social change.

The challenge to the market would, taken seriously, overturn the foundation of the party's political economy.

A substantial commitment to a new focus on distributing resources, power and opportunity to the poorest would be very welcome. But there does not seem to be a significant Tory constituency for substantive redistribution of wealth to 'recapitalise the poor' in a party which remains enthusiastic about the inheritance tax cuts at the top (which Blond has criticised), or to counter the ability of the middle-classes to benefit most from public services. And Stuart suggests that Red Toryism itself remains rather pale pink in its substantive proposals on assets and ownership.

They all seem very significant barriers to the Red Toryism, but it would be too simple to say that it will therefore come to nothing. After all, why would David Cameron spend so much time promoting Blond's ideas and projects?

One interesting answer was given by an unnamed shadow minister in John Harris' Guardian profile of Blond.

When I speak to a shadow minister and Cameron ally, he says that "self-consciously nostalgic" aspects of Blond's thinking are difficult to square with the Tory leader's emphasis on modernisation, but that doesn't mean that he isn't being listened to, as Hilton's admiration of Blond proves.

"Core to what David Cameron feels," says the source, "is that a Toryism that is all about the price of everything and the value of nothing, is arid and inadequate, and not him. He wants to find an account of the world that is rightwing and Tory, but which also explains why he doesn't want village post offices to shut. Phillip Blond provides him with that." This, he says, is more a matter of mood music than hard policy. "If you look to Phillip to come up with five proposals that could form the core of a white paper, you search in vain. But if you look to someone who can reinforce an intellectual climate, he can provide."

One hopes that, as a political thinker, Blond will resist the temptation to trim his ideas to fit what is politically convenient.

But politicians may always tend to be wary of ideas which might prove dangerous.

The leader's offices comments in today's newspapers that:

a senior Conservative source said it would be quite wrong to suggest Mr Cameron’s attendance at the launch meant he embraced Mr Blond’s thesis. “David likes some of what he says but by no means all of it.”

That exemplifies my instinct about where Red Toryism might fit in to David Cameron's High Tory court politics.

Cameron is a pragmatic high Tory: his generation has broadly Thatcherite beliefs, but his dispositional conservatism makes him inclined to wear these relatively lightly. So he will, by design, have a Green Tory in Zac Goldsmith; a Red Tory at Demos; Ken Clarke in his shadow cabinet; as well as tax-cutting and Eurosceptic pressure from the grassroots. All will have his ear, and none his full allegiance.

Paradoxically, a leadership which sees merit in taking no firm view about the ideological direction of the party cannot take a laissez-faire view about the internal debate. That is the lesson of the slow death of John Major.

A Tory court politics is only possible if there are competing views in the party. But Thatcherism left the party mainly thinking one thing – that less state equals more freedom – while the Eurosceptics have organized effectively in constituency selections. Cameron is sponsoring alternative views because they would barely exist without his patronage. It does not mean he agrees with them.

But if Cameronism may be interested in the mood music of Red Toryism, without its policy prescriptions, then it remains unclear what "social responsibility" will mean, particularly when it comes to resolving the tensions between the disruptive impact of market economics on social practices, institutions and traditions which conservatives value.

David Cameron now accepts the need to offer an account of the role of government, though his Hugo Young lecture did not particularly clarify what this might be, while his skipping straight from 1968 to 1997 again showed how difficult it is for him to have an account of the Thatcherite 'rupture' in Tory thinking.

We shall see whether his engagement with ResPublica brings him any closer to filling in those central question marks over what his substantive agenda might be.


jailhouselawyer said...

The dumb Blond

Lord Blagger said...

Complete twaddle.

It's all about rearanging the deck chairs on the Titanic ship of government debt.

8 Trillion in debt, and only 0.5 trillion in tax revenues.

It's going down, and the Political chatterati can only comment about people's hair styles and what labels to stick on politicians.