Simon Heans finds some commendable ideas in the views of the political theologian Phillip Blond and his new take on Toryism
Red Toryism is the invention of Phillip Blond, the newly appointed Director of the Progressive Conservatism Project at the think-tank Demos. Blond shared a platform with David Cameron at the launch of the Project earlier this year and appears to be close to the Conservative leader. Prospect magazine named him as their ‘thinker to watch in 2009’. He is also an Anglican who was confirmed fifteen years ago at the age of 27 when he was a postgraduate student at Peterhouse, Cambridge.
This will give some readers a clue as to where Red Toryism comes from, for throughout the Nineties Peterhouse was home to Radical Orthodoxy. Its leading light, John Milbank, taught there and supervised Blonds PhD. That was in theology, but like his mentor, Blond has always been a political theologian. ‘ However, unlike Milbank whose first book was dedicated to the socialist Jubilee Group (styled ‘the Remnant of Christendom’) and who continues to call himself a socialist, Blond is a Tory. But why a Red Tory?
One answer is to be found in the ‘more orthodox than thou’ approach to theology of Milbank and friends. Like their radical counterparts from the Sixties, they behave as if they invented it. Blond’s attitude to Toryism is similar. But though his methodology may be new in Tory circles, for it owes little to the empirical and sceptical spirit of the conservative historian, it will be familiar to the Marxist. In his analysis of recent British political history, Blond goes in for a grand narrative made up of discrete periods demarcated from one another by moments of decisive, revolutionary change which he supposes will culminate in the coming revolution when all will be well.
‘It is now clear,’ announced Blond at the beginning of his speech launching the Progressive Conservatism Project, ‘that we are at one of those epoch changing moments in British political history’ And he goes on to predict that ‘the unprecedented debt crisis of 2008/2009…will see an end to the market state’. This period of history began, according to Blond, in 1979 ‘which brought an end to the welfare state’. And the coming revolution? That will happen after the next election which will, ‘with the election of a Conservative government, usher in the birth of the civic state.’
It is hard not to be amused at this presentation of’Dave Snooty and His Pals’ as revolutionaries. The Private Eye caricature is right in drawing attention to the fact that by opting for Cameron as leader, the Conservative Party turned its back on the modern practice, which began in the aftermath of Sir Alec Douglas Hume’s election defeat of 1964, of having a grammar school boy – or girl – at the helm.
The evidence here points to a reaction rather than a revolution in Tory affairs. The late Maurice Cowling, sometime director of studies in history at Peterhouse before Radical Orthodoxy set itself up there, used to say that he was a Tory Marxist because he believed in the class struggle but did not want the working class to win it. That is the nasty, as against Blond’s nice, version of Red Toryism.
But there are indeed some nice ideas in Red Toryism. Since they are inspired by G.K. Chesterton’s generous vision of a Catholic economic order, that is exactly what we would expect. Red Toryism is, in a sense, distributism for the twentyfirst century. So, for example, on the pressing issue of banking reform, Blond proposes the reversal of Peter Mandelson’s privatization of the Post Office so that it could become a high street bank lending at low interest rates and responsive to the investment needs of the local economic sector. In association with the Post Office he proposes the setting up of ‘a new class of local investment trusts dedicated to investing in the cities and villages that they serve’. The aim would be to provide the finance for what Cameron called in a 2007 speech ‘the conservative cooperative movement’.
On this issue Blond is fond of quoting the following statistics from a New Economics Foundation study. For every pound spent with a local shop, £1.76 was generated for the local economy as against only 36p if the £1 was spent in a supermarket. He points out that the UK has one of the lowest percentages of small and medium businesses, and wants to see tougher planning laws and reformed local tax bases to reverse the trend towards ‘the big box retail model and the permanent dominance of the supermarkets! Alongside this he wants to see Conservatives ‘restoring capital to labour’. He claims that ‘in Britain the share of wealth (excluding property) enjoyed by the bottom 50% of the population fell from 12% in 1976 to just 1% in 2003’ and argues for ‘a considered rejection of social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice’ on the grounds that ‘this language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10-15% of top-rate tax payers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value.’
A political theology?
That seems to me a rather good description of the human cost of the unprecedented levels of personal indebtedness in contemporary Britain which, as Blond points out, have risen from £570 billion in 1997 to the latest figure of £1.5 trillion. He is also absolutely right to criticize the effect on family size of the two-income household necessitated by high mortgage repayments. But does he seriously suppose that Cameron and Co. will eschew talk of ‘opportunity, education and choice’ just because he says it is ‘statist’ and ‘neo-liberai’? In favour of what? Self-abnegation, worship and obedience to the will of God? Here, surely, are the limits of political theology.
So while it is a pleasant surprise to find an Anglican theologian being taken seriously as a political thinker, I hope Phillip doesn’t let all this attention go to his head, or even worse, his soul. In the last analysis, reading about Red Toryism reminded me of Tory Democracy, an oxymoron from the Victorian era. David Cameron has declared his favourite politician to be Disraeli. When asked what Tory Democracy meant, he replied, ‘Mostly opportunism, I think’.