Faber & Faber, £12.99 (309pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

Red Tory, By Phillip Blond

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn