Thursday, 13 May 2010

Red Toryism: liberal all along!

Next Left stands second to none in its efforts to grapple with the ideas of Red Toryism. We are intrigued to see how it is developing now that the Conservatives have formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

There is some delicacy surrounding this issue because if there is one thing that seemed clear about Red Toryism its this: it repudiates 'liberalism'. Indeed, in one of Next Left's first looks at Red Toryism, I examined Phillip Blond's critique of liberalism in some depth. I argued that his characterisation of liberalism is a misleading caricature.

One of Blond's recurring claims is that liberalism has no place in its philosophy for groups intermediate between the individual and the state. We'll come back to this shortly.

Aside from being its being inaccurate, I have been puzzled as to why Blond finds it necessary to ground his Red Toryism in this anti-liberal positioning. The policy programme of Red Toryism - the emphases on greater asset equality, localism and empowerment of civil society - could rest quite firmly on liberal philosophical foundations. So why make such a fuss of having a go at liberalism?

Now run the clock forward to Wednesday May 12, the first full day of a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. Phillip Blond is on the BBC's Newsnight. Kirsty Wark asks him whether the Tory-Lib Dem coalition isn't just a marriage of convenience with little philosophical underpinning. (The relevant bit of the interview starts at about 36: 24 minutes into the program.)

What happens next?

A tirade against liberalism as a philosophy of morally nihilistic, spiritually vapid hedonism?

Not exactly.

Phillip Blond is positively lyrical on the affinity between liberalism and Cameron's brand of Conservatism. Both share a vision of a 'new agency for social change' based on that much maligned notion of the 'big society'.

This idea, Blond tells the viewer, is the 'decisive political move' since it has nothing less than 'genuine resonance with the Liberals'. Consider Jo Grimond, the great post-war Liberal leader. Grimond was, according to Blond, 'the first big society thinker'. Indeed - and keep in mind here Blond's earlier claims about liberalism - Grimond always said that 'individuals could only express themselves through groups - civic groups'.

Warming to his theme, Blond tells us that 'oddly if you back to the liberal tradition, what's really transformative and liberating about them, you find parallels with what David [Cameron] is doing...'

So Red Toryism turns out be fully consistent with liberalism after all.

Presumably we can look forward to a second edition of Blond's book, Red Tory, one which appropriately revises the overwhelmingly negative commentary on liberalism in the present edition.

7 comments:

rb said...

Red Tory + Orange Book Liberal = Fruit Salad.

giroscoper said...

I've liked Philip Blond the few times I've met him, but his greatest talent seems to be for ideological improvisation - a polite term for making it up as you go along.

Sunder Katwala said...

A twitter response (though the 140 character limit makes it quite difficult to make out precisely what the final point is).

Me:

@Phillip_Blond was against liberalism before he was for it. Stuart White asks why coalition changed the Red Tory case

Phillip:

@nextleft I am against a liberalism that does not produce liberty:- individualism and statism but if it does groups that is what I argue for

Sunder Katwala said...

so for a liberalism that has an account of 'groups', and presumably thinks Jo Grimond does that, and infers that the coalition agreement does this too.

Al Shaw said...

As a non-specialist, I agree that some of the language of Red Toryism can be confusing, especially in its critique of "liberaism".

Having said that, difficulties over vocabulary are hardly anything new in political philosophy (as any who have read Marx will surely agree.)

The real issues, I think, are Blond's critique of both statism and The Market (as currently defined). In both regrads, I feel he is saying some very important things about how a truely just and free society can be faciltated.

Stuart White said...

Thanks all.

That Phillip now recognises that liberalism can 'do groups', as it were, is a major shift on his part. I vividly recall him saying at a Demos seminar: 'Liberalism doesn't do groups'!

He's right on the substance - Grimond can indeed be seen as a 'big society' thinker. As can Michael Young or G.D.H. Cole within the Labour tradition. Perhaps Phillip should keep the latter in mind in case he ever needs to come to terms with a Con-Lab coalition!:)

Bruce Smith said...

I think Christian solidarity over-played its hand with regard to Phillip Blond's attack on Liberalism. A reading of Mark Cladis's book "A Communitarian Defense of Liberalism" would have applied a useful touch to the tiller.