Faber & Faber, £12.99 (309pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030
Red Tory, By Phillip Blond
Friday 02 April 2010
According to Phillip Blond, there has been "a wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief". It has led to " increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family break-up, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork, longer and longer working hours, children who have no parents... seemingly immovable poverty, the permanence of inequality, teenagers with knives, teenagers being knifed, the decline of politeness, aggressive youths, the erosion of our civil liberties and the increase of obsessive surveillance, public authoritarianism, private libertarianism, general pointlessness, political cynicism and a pervading lack of daily joy". It is a dire litany, but in this book about "how the Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it", Blond is confident that nearly everyone will accept this calamitous diagnosis: "When I say that British culture has collapsed, we - whatever our political beliefs - almost immediately recognise the truth of it." He is no less confident that the calamity can be reversed, if only his analysis is understood and acted on.
A theologian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Radical Orthodoxy, Blond is the only significant thinker in the Cameron entourage, so his view of the condition of Britain has more than theoretical interest. Britain is in the state it is, he argues, as a result of an unholy alliance of the permissive counter-culture with market individualism. By giving personal choice supremacy over all other values, these seemingly opposed movements of the 1960s and the 1980s produced Britain as it is today: a society with no conception of the common good that is held together by the anonymous forces of the market and the coercive power of the state.
The remedy is a combination of cultural conservatism and anti-market radicalism, Blond believes, and a template for this mix can be found in the Distributism of Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton. Describing these Catholic writers as "radical liberals" - a flattering description, given that they believed pretty much everything had gone downhill since the Reformation - he tells us they were influential in the 1920s in shaping the Tory idea of a property-owning democracy. By joining together this conservative brand of anti-capitalism with policies aiming to strengthen social and moral bonds, "broken Britain" can be repaired and a more cohesive, organic society restored.
There can be little doubt that the narrow versions of liberalism prevalent over the past generation must bear some responsibility for the ills Britain suffers today. Blond's account of how the state and market have crowded out social institutions is one from which every politician can learn. That is why - as I say in a comment that adorns the book's cover - Red Tory should be welcomed for presenting new ideas that could reshape political debate.
But there are dangers in Blond's wholesale rejection of liberal values, which I confess are clearer to me now that I have been able to examine his position more closely. For one thing it is not at all obvious that an organic society of the kind Blond defends is what most people want. One of his many far-reaching policy proposals is to re-shape tax structures to re-localise the economy and make life in small towns and villages more sustainable. The aim seems to be a modern version of the stable and peaceful world that supposedly existed in medieval times. But how many voters truly yearn for a more localised existence, with the loss of privacy and variety that it entails? How many could even tolerate such a life?
In setting out his vision of the common good, Blond might have paused to consider the extent to which the more cohesive societies of the past were also more repressive. It is all too easy to succumb to Romantic visions of lost harmony. If you were a woman or gay, Jewish or a member of a minority Christian tradition, you might find the strong communities of medieval Christendom more than a little claustrophobic.
This is not just a question of how Blond sees the past, for while Red Tory contains a lot about the economic policies he thinks are necessary if market individualism is to be tamed, it says very little about the legal changes that have made Britain a more civilised place in which to live. Would he repeal existing law on abortion or gay adoption, for example?
There are practical difficulties in this programme, some clearly insuperable. The re-localised economy could only be built behind walls of trade protection, but Britain is much too small a unit. A larger bloc would be needed and only the EU fits the bill, but the likelihood of Cameron seeking deeper British integration into Europe must be close to zero.
Even if this obstacle were somehow overcome, how would China react to European protectionism? How would the US? If Cameron succeeds in forming a government, which is by no means clear, one thing is certain: building a neo-medieval economy will not be on the agenda. The overriding objective will be simply to stay afloat.
The real objections to the programme set out in Red Tory are not purely practical. The core of Blond's political thinking is a belief in an extra-human source of authority. " If there is no transcendent value in any sense," he writes, "then all that is left is the given variety of nature on the one hand and the imposition of artificial norms on the other." Who would have imagined, even a few years ago, that the central issues of politics would ever again be framed in theological terms?
Secularists will be horrified, but there are advantages in the return of theology. Much in recent discourse - not least the ideology of market fundamentalism - has consisted of faith masquerading as science. By re-linking political argument more explicitly with religion, Blond has usefully clarified the debate.
Once again, though, he seems unaware of the difficulties of his position. Ours may be a post-secular society (I think so myself) but that is very different from reverting to any version of Christian orthodoxy. Britain today is home to a plurality of religious traditions, ranging from varieties of theism through to the many strands of Hinduism and the godless spirituality of Buddhism. There are also many kinds of agnosticism and scepticism, some indistinguishable from undogmatic versions of faith.
This rich and interesting diversity is one reason why Blond's project of reinstating a more unitary culture is so deeply problematic. Today there is no possibility of reaching society-wide agreement on ultimate questions. Happily such agreement is not necessary, nor even desirable. No government can roll back modernity, and none should try. We may be in a mess. But the pluralist society that Britain has become is more hospitable to the good life than the imagined order of an earlier age, which in the end is just one more stifling utopia.
John Gray's 'Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings' is in Penguin paperback
Mind behind the throne? Phillip Blond
Phillip Blond (born 1966), the son of an artist, grew up on Merseyside. He studied philosophy and politics at Hull and Warwick, then theology at Cambridge. An Anglican by conversion, he taught theology at Exeter and Cumbria Universities. After his writing caught the eye of the Conservative Party under David Cameron (left), he led the "progressive Conservatism" project for Demos, then founded the ResPublica think-tank. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.
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