The rise and rise of Cameron's philosopher-king

Phillip Blond's anti-Thatcherite 'Red Tory' views now appeal to the party's leadership, but for how long? Andy McSmith reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A former secondary modern schoolboy whose politics were coloured by what Thatcherism did to his native city of Liverpool is to have his surprising status as one of David Cameron's court philosophers confirmed tomorrow.

Phillip Blond, the intellectual father of "Red Toryism" is launching a new think tank, ResPublica, to take Tory thinking further into the left's traditional home turf, by exploring what Conservatism can do for the poor and for the shattered communities in inner cities.

The Conservative leader will be at the launch to lend authority to the thinker nicknamed David Cameron's "philosopher-king", although Tory spin doctors are stressing that this should not be taken to mean that all Mr Blond's ideas will be taken up as party policy. He is seen in Cameron's circles as a thinker who is at least asking the right sort of questions.

Mr Blond has needed a new base from which to operate after his brief spell as New Labour's favourite Tory intellectual came to an end. Just as David Cameron feels he needs intellectual outriders like Mr Blond to help him overcome the Conservatives' image as the "nasty party", so intellectuals from New Labour thought earlier this year that the theology lecturer from Cumbria University might be the man who could open a channel between them and the "progressive" wing of the Conservative Party.

In quick succession, Mr Blond was appointed a research fellow at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) and the director of the Progressive Conservatism Project at the think tank, Demos. Demos was founded in the 1990s by Geoff Mulgan, who went from there to be one of Tony Blair's policy advisers in Downing Street. It has been seen ever since as a New Labour think tank. Nesta was set up with National Lottery money in 1998, during Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia" phase. At a time when it was thought that Gordon Brown might be ousted in favour of David Miliband, Nesta's chief executive, Jonathan Kestenbaum, was rumoured to be in line to be the new Downing Street chief of staff, a report he denied.

Phillip Blond's time at Demos barely lasted four months before he fell out with them this summer. By then, his catchphrase "Red Toryism" and his reputed closeness to David Cameron, and particularly to Cameron's adviser, Steve Hilton, had attracted so much interest that he was able to raise £1.5m to fund ResPublica for three years.

The interesting question now is how long it will take before he falls out with David Cameron and the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne. Mr Blond is their ally now because he is so plainly not part of the "Turnip Taliban" – those crusty, chauvinistic rural Tories yearning for a return to the glory days of Margaret Thatcher. He does not believe in authoritarian government or uncontrolled free markets, and believes power should be devolved locally, and cares about the poor and disadvantaged.

But Cameron and Osborne are hard-nosed politicians who understand the power of political slogans, including unwelcome slogans like "Hug a hoodie" that can attach themselves to politicians when their words are misrepresented. Mr Blond is a thinker who is happy to take up a position contrary to most people's instinctive assumptions and defend it with reasoned argument. He has written in praise of the "medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships" which, sadly he thinks, was destroyed by the rise of powerful monarchs. "Back to the Middle Ages" is not a slogan likely to feature in Conservative campaign literature.

But where Mr Blond runs the greatest risk of making serious enemies in the Conservative Party is through his view of the Thatcher years. He is not a Thatcherite liberal, believing that pure liberalism leads to anarchy and a general decline in personal responsibility which in turn opens the way for a "surveillance state". That is a condemnation both of the cultural liberalism associated with the 1960s, and of the unfettered free market. He believes that the Thatcher years created a "market state" in which "the state sanctioned monopoly capitalism and sat happy on the tax receipts of unrestrained global gambling".

This hostility to Thatcherism is rooted in his boyhood experiences on Merseyside. Now aged 43, he was just entering his teens when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and lived in a succession of homes in Liverpool and the Wirral. His parents split up, and his father's subsequent marriage gives rise to the interesting but irrelevant fact that his step-brother is Daniel Craig, of 007 fame.

He failed his 11-plus and went to secondary modern, but then won a place at Hull University, and subsequently at Peterhouse College, Cambridge. This was during the troubled years of the Toxteth riots and the ascendancy of the ultra-left on Liverpool council. "I saw the disruption to the lives of ordinary, decent people caught between the insane policies of the Militants and the brutality of Thatcherism," he said in one interview.

When he was 27, he converted from Catholicism to the Church of England. Religion is at the root of his political beliefs, which are similar to those of the former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith. He is opposed to capital punishment, and to abortion in all but extreme cases such as incest, or rape, or where the mother is under-age. In his book, Red Tory, out in the spring, he will argue for co-operatives on council estates, run by tenants, and a doorstep credit service that will let them escape the loan sharks.

David Cameron likes this sort of thinking now, because it is unconventional and applied to problems which the Tory leader wants to be seen to be taking seriously. But there is a certain resemblance between Mr Blond and that other Christian iconoclast from Merseyside, Frank Field. In opposition, Tony Blair thought it was great to have Frank Field around, "thinking the unthinkable". Within a year of being constrained by the limits of high office, he and Field had fallen out permanently. That, many Tories suspect, is roughly what the future holds for David Cameron's "philosopher-king".

Blue skies thinking: Cameron's influences

David Hume The 18th-century Scottish philosopher and economist was Cameron's biggest influence as he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.

Richard Thaler American economist who champions the "nudge theory" – that the public can be encouraged, rather than coerced, into changing their lifestyle.

Margaret Thatcher As an undergraduate, Cameron was a devoted supporter of the former prime minister. He held a party in his college room to celebrate her third election victory.

George Osborne The shadow Chancellor was an advocate of modernising the Tory party before his friend put the strategy into practice.

Comments