If there were an annual prize for Pretentious Book of the Year, Red Tory would be well placed to emerge winner for 2010. Yet it is impossible not to admire the self-confidence with which Phillip Blond attempts an analysis of what he calls "the wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief", a diagnosis of the causes of the accompanying "economic malaise" and a prescription to remedy our numerous woes - all in around 300 pages. Not surprisingly, the result does not justify the presumption. And the claim to novelty - as well as scholarship - is undermined by the concluding endorsement of a series of vacuous assertions taken from the collected speeches of David Cameron. Yet Red Tory should not be written off as trivial or meretricious. We should welcome it as an attempt to return to the politics of ideas.
The basic thesis is set out in the introduction: "There are only two powers in our country: the state and the marketplace. All other sources
of independent autonomous power have been crushed." Blond's mission is first to demonstrate that our decline results from denying power to the people, and then to describe ways in which their economic and political sovereignty can be restored.
It is an attractive proposition, but he sets out aspirations dressed up to look like policies. No doubt he will claim that it is an absence of vision that has created the several crises that Britain now faces. In part, he will be right. But the ship of state sails on only if the distant view from
the crow's nest is matched by a recognition that hard work has to be done in the engine room. Red Tory makes no concessions to reality.
Blond's account of what caused the economic and social crises necessarily plods its way through the statistics of decline and failure. Some of these - the increases in administration costs and staff numbers in the health service - are hackneyed old complaints regurgitated in academic language. The litany of error is enlivened, however, by a technique which - and I mean this as a compliment - makes Blond at his best reminiscent of Tawney at his worst. Both men produce aphorisms which are so compelling that the reader barely notices their message is wrong. Blond says the "origin of the present crisis lies not in unwise lending to the poor but in a failure to secure a widespread distribution of property". Had he written "fundamental" rather than "present", the result would have been more accurate, but less dramatic.
The "errors of the right" that Blond faithfully charts include Nigel Lawson's Big Bang - the origin of the craze for financial deregulation, which has somehow escaped the blame it deserves - and an increase in inequality that "has remained a permanent feature of our socio-economic landscape ever since". But the real complaint is embodied in a criticism of welfare policy. It could have been "localised . . . and thereby brought in the people". The need for participation is Red Tory's constant theme. It reinforces the author's exposure of the "errors of the left". The obsession with markets, which New Labour inherited from the Tories, was combined with an equal passion for state regulation and intervention. The mistake, however - here comes another of those aphorisms - was the attempt "to create a third way, without a third sector". In its absence, the people are subject to the "contemporary authoritarianism" of either the unprincipled market or the inefficient state.
So far, so competent. But on page 159, Blond begins to explain how to put the world to rights. I doubt if I am alone in finding some of his solutions incomprehensible. Not only are they intangible to the point of mysticism, but they are explained in language that either obscures their precision or camouflages its absence. Blond writes of recreating an "ethos". There is one already, even though it is not the ethos Blond likes. I share his distaste for "the staged banalities and catfights of Channel 4's populist hit Big Brother" - a programme that suggests an ethos of prurient commercialism - but by misusing or misunderstanding the word, he undermines his intellectual credibility.
When Blond deals with practical examples of the way in which power can be dispersed - the proliferation of "people's banks" in Lombardy, say - his proposals make sense and justify the claim that he hovers somewhere between the two political poles. But when he returns to "philosophy", he demonstrates either a woeful misunderstanding of the true nature of freedom or an acceptance of a diluted version of the neoconservative view that intervention by the state is always tyrannical. He fails to grasp that freedom - from private greed, as well as public oppression - has to be organised and that only the state can do it.
According to Blond, redistribution is "always limited" (which is not necessarily so) and "unstable" (which is untrue), and it "involves the coercion of the individual" (which denies the right of the state to act on behalf of the community as a whole). Yet he is for less inequality. Only in Japan - where the "ethos" of social similarity is a thousand years old - does it happen automatically. Red Tory constantly underestimates the good that can only be done by collective action initiated by the state.
Nor does Blond examine the consequences of emasculating state power. It may well be that, because of centralised provision, "behaviour that should facilitate routes out of poverty . . . has been rendered economically unappealing, risky or even irrational for the poorest members of society". It was in order to remedy "welfare dependency" that the government introduced programmes designed to encourage, and sometimes coerce, the unemployed into taking jobs. But how, in the short-term absence of a change in culture, are the poor to be induced to accept wages that are lower than state benefits?
One answer is to cut the rates and let the still work-shy starve. Another is to change the balance between employment and idleness by increasing the minimum wage. Blond does not condescend to deal with such mundane day-to-day expedients. His solutions are always on the distant horizon. We do not have time to wait for the creation of "a civil state in which professional responsibility has been restored to individuals and collegiate groups". In the meantime, practical politicians have to face the balance of the ideal against the possible.
Red Tory is written in a way that is designed to leave the reader in no doubt about the erudition of its author. In a typical paragraph, which condenses criticism of Mill, Keynes and Marx into a single sentence, Blond proclaims that "capitalism will engender endless new needs". So will the human spirit. But there is much evidence to suggest that, in the sophisticated societies of the west, moral imperatives and self-interest converge to create new demands that are neither positional goods nor portable property. The affluent citizen wants tranquillity above all else - less street crime, drug-taking and adult illiteracy, fewer unwanted teenage pregnancies and more congenial neighbours. Those benefits come with the greater equality that only a redistributive state can bring about. They will not be promoted by a Tory of any colour.
Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92