A new take on Tory

In these days of ideological confusion, we are all scrambling to make sense of a political landscape more fluid and difficult to map than anything since the 1930s.

April 24 th 2009

Just when Canadians thought that Red Toryism was pretty much dead and buried, swept away in the nineties by the confident new synthesis of economic liberalism and social conservatism forged by the Albertan (now Canadian Prime Minister) Stephen Harper, the Brits have decided to reinvent it for the new millenium. More properly, we should say that the English have reinvented it, as this version is distinctively Anglo. What's more—its originator is part of a theologically Catholic movement associated with the religious left.

This introduction is really a friendly tease to American readers who have been brought up to think that "liberal" means left-wing and that "Britain" is England, and who might baulk at the idea that an Anglo-Catholic leftist could espouse anything conservative, least of all "Tory." (Many Americans would, however, know where Alberta is—I didn't want to throw them into a complete spin.)

But frankly, in these days of fissiparous ideological confusion, we are all scrambling to make sense of a political landscape more fluid and difficult to map than anything since the 1930s. Judging by the local responses to a recent statement of the new Red Toryism, many Brits don't know what to make of it either.

The statement is an article entitled "Rise of the red Tories" in the February 2009 issue of the highbrow journal Prospect, written by Phillip Blond. Blond is a young British theology professor associated with the movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, now plying his intriguing wares at the prominent left-of-centre London think tank Demos, where he directs the "Progressive Conservatism" project. (Pause now while Canadians blink with surprise.) Blond propounds "a 'red Tory' communitarism, socially conservative but anti-big business"—a dusted-down "organic conservatism" originally inspired by Anglo-Irish Whig Edmund Burke. (Everyone clear?)

Why is this emerging, and what is it all about? Blond is a sharp, anti-capitalist, orthodox Anglo-Catholic social theologian who has had it with the British left. New Labour "is intellectually dead." Having finally abandoned its socialist roots for an uncritical embrace of "the market state" in the 1990s, it has now been yanked back into its post-war Keynesian statism by the recent global financial meltdown. It has nothing new to offer.

The Conservative party under David Cameron, however, shows signs of promise. One of Cameron's trademark lines is "Britain is a broken society"—meaning that its social fabric of stable family life and cohesive neighbourhoods is falling apart at the seams. Blond endorses this judgment but wants to deepen the analysis behind it and extend the implications flowing from it by supplying some intellectual heft. He proposes to do so by drawing on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century traditions of English localist, mutualist and pluralist thought associated with figures like Chesterton, Belloc, Ruskin, Carlyle and Tawney (he might also have included Figgis, Laski, and Cole). These will help bring the Disraelian "one-nation conservatism" that Cameron favours up to date and make it relevant to today's distinctive pathologies.

What are these pathologies? According to Blond, "We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry. The intermediary structures of a civilised life have been eliminated, and with them the Burkean ideal of a civic, religious, political or social middle, as the state and the market accrue power at the expense of ordinary people."

There is a common source of the two sides of this polarity, and this also explains the deficiencies of both political left and right: "liberalism." By this he means a liberalism which proceeds from an assertion of radical individual autonomy. He does not pause to note that there are other, less damaging variants of liberalism. (See Gideon Strauss in Comment on living with liberalism: 1 and 2.)

But this kind of liberalism "requires the repudiation of society—for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape. The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation."

A society constructed on such lines "would be one that required a powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals. So the unanticipated bequest of an unlimited liberalism is that most illiberal of entities: the controlling state." The lessons for both the left and right in Britain are plain: "Unlimited liberalism produces atomised relativism and state absolutism. Insofar as both the Tories and Labour have been contaminated by liberalism, the true left-right legacy of the postwar period is, unsurprisingly, a centralised authoritarian state and a fragmented and disassociative society."

This is a striking and perceptive critique, but it is not new. Blond does not in this article (written for a secular liberal journal) acknowledge that precisely this critique had already been painstaking elaborated by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholic Social Teaching. In a landmark, but sadly neglected social encyclical (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, §78), Pope Pius XII writes this:

Things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed 'individualism' that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.

Readers familiar with the tradition of neocalvinist thought will also immediately recognize its close affinities with this reading of the politics of modernity. These strands of Christian social thought profoundly shaped the early years of the European and Latin American movements of Christian Democracy. So can we interpret Blond, in effect, as calling the Tory party to become more Christian Democratic? He has yet to say this, but I hope he will, for the leading intellectuals of this movement have as much—if not more—to offer than the English thinkers he cites in his article.

Blond identifies two manifestations of these pathologies that must be laid specifically at the door of the left. One is the collapse of the mutualism of the working class under a "managerial state," compounded by the persistence of class as a reference point for economic policy and political loyalty, and by the growth of monopoly in both the public sector (nationalisation) and in the private sector (not only in the huge concentration of economic power in a small number of corporations, but also today in the "modal monopoly" of the globalized credit system).

The other is the triumph of a permissive morality: "Creating the licentious empty pleasure-seeking drones of the late 1960s." Commendably, Blond does not pull his punches in indicting the left for the latter kind of damage: "This left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy relativism of the liberal professional elite."

It's worth noting that a key contributor to Cameron's new social policy is the Centre for Social Justice founded by former Tory party leader Iain Duncan-Smith. This innovative and widely respected think tank—which is "secular" but evidently receptive to faith-based thinking—is piling up a series of excellent reports supplying empirical documentation to support the kind of high-flown charges Blond levels.

At the heart of Blond's solutions is a "new localism," an expansive term including a wide range of policies that might be more carefully categorized than he does. They include the "relocalisation" of the banking system, centred around a strengthened Post Office (which in the UK has strong local loyalties); the establishment of "local investment trusts"; a new "social fund" (already proposed by Cameron) to supply micro-finance to people lacking assets; the creation of new "guilds and cooperatives"; empowered local authorities; a revival of "mutualism" in the labour movement; employee share ownership schemes; workers buyouts, "equity guilds" and asset cooperatives"; and a radical anti-monopoly policy. The key strategic objective—the "recapitalisation of the poor"—would form the heart of a "transformative red Tory manifesto" which would "build a new economic and capital base that decentralises power and extends wealth and also makes a final break with the logic of monopoly and debt-financed capitalism."

Overall, this is a provocative package—some of it right on the money (so to speak), some romantic dreaming, but most worthy of careful consideration. Those sympathetic to the strands of Christian social thought I cited earlier will find in Blond's analysis and prescription much to engage with appreciatively. They will, however, press Blond to make a clearer distinction between "localisation" and "pluralism"—bringing decision-making down to smaller territorial units isn't the same as, and doesn't guarantee, respecting the independence of non-governmental organisations. There is always the risk of "local statism."

What are the prospects if the Tory party under David Cameron taking on Blond's programme? There are some signs already of receptiveness among key Tory policy-formers to the "social conservative" and the "localist" thrusts of the approach. A key test is whether they are also willing to embrace the "anti-monopoly" broadside. That would indicate their desire to put clear blue water between the party and the larger corporations with which it has long had an unhealthily cosy relationship (and which provide much of its funding). Ever the optimist, I'm watching very closely.

Topics: Culture
 

Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is former Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.

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