The NS Profile: Phillip Blond
His “Red Tory” thesis is attracting support from left and right, and the man emerging as the Conserv
Phillip Blond is sitting in his London office. “I think mine is a genuinely radical project,” he says. “Lots of people on the left have said to me that if the Tories do what I’m telling them to, they’ll vote for them.”
He is talking about the Progressive Conservatism Project, which he runs at the think tank Demos. Launched late last month at an event addressed by David Cameron, Blond's new venture has attracted an extraordinary level of interest from across the political spectrum. He ascribes this to the moment we are living through.
"It's very clear we're in the middle of a paradigm shift," he says. "We are witnessing the end of the neoliberal project - just as 30 years ago we saw the end of Keynesianism. We're in a shift of comparable proportions. The interesting question is what comes next."
In an essay this month for Prospect magazine, "Rise of the Red Tories", Blond argues that what ought to come next is something he calls communitarian civic conservatism - or "Red Toryism". "The current political consensus", he writes, is "left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be."
However, Blond thinks that Cameron and the Tories are beginning to see their way beyond the impasse. They are right, he says: we do live in a broken society. But it wasn't only the dead hand of the welfare state that caused the bonds and attachments of civil association (the "old mutualism of the working class" and so on) to give way; late-modern capitalism's "perennial gale of creative destruction" (to use Joseph Schumpeter's phrase) has played its part, too.
So far, Cameron's "progressive conservatism", with its emphasis on social and welfare reform, has told only half of this story. Indeed, as Will Hutton pointed out at the Demos launch, the idea was "built on the prosperity of the past decade", and that prosperity has now come to an abrupt end. The language of decentralisation, mutualism and voluntary association may be socially compelling, Hutton went on, but it is economically vacuous.
Blond's Red Tory thesis is that the Conservatives can, and should, meet this challenge. They need to recognise that neoliberalism, or "free-market fundamentalism", has created "private-sector monopolies" (high-street behemoths such as Tesco) that are every bit as corrosive of the "intermediary structures of a civilised life" as the state monopolies of the old, Keynesian dispensation. Blond calls for a "new communitarian settlement", involving what he terms the "relocalisation of the economy" and the "recapitalisation of the poor". To this end, he recommends, among other policy measures, an extension of the Post Office's retail banking function and the establishment of local investment trusts that would offer finance to people without assets.
Presumably this commitment to wider distribution of assets is the kind of thing that Blond's friends on the left have found attractive. Yet, as Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, has noted, what is intriguing about Cameron's "patronage" of Blond's project is that a "Red Tory revolution would certainly need much blue blood to be spilled" - and it is not obvious that the Tory leader has the stamina for such a fight inside his own party. (One Conservative backbencher's promotion this month of a bill that would allow the minimum wage to people willing to work for less suggests that the battle would indeed be bloody.) Certainly, when Cameron spoke at the Progressive Conservatism launch, he preferred to repeat his party's talking points about "Labour's debt crisis", rather than draw any more far-reaching conclusions from the financial meltdown.
Blond rejects the terms of Katwala's analysis, however, when I put it to him. For one thing, Cameron is not his "patron": "I'm an independent academic at an independent think tank." Demos is, notionally at least, a left-of-centre operation and Blond is not a product of the Conservative research Establishment. Until recently, he was a lecturer in theology at the University of Cumbria. Of Demos, he says: "I wanted to put myself in an environment that was critical of my ideas. I wanted to put myself in a genuinely creative environment. And I am thoroughly independent: I've been careful to maintain that." (Later, however, Blond says he is "quite well connected with the Tory agenda", and describes how he was contacted last year by someone at the Conservative Party's policy unit after he had an article published in the Guardian.)
In any case, he thinks the left has got Cameron wrong. "I think he is in deadly earnest. And I don't think it's cover for another agenda. The left wants to believe it's Thatcherism Mark II, but it isn't. The left is still far too mired in the old politics, and it's the right who are making the running. The reason my article has had such an effect is that no one can doubt it's progressive. And I believe that Cameron is committed to it." He points to the Conservative leader's speech at Davos last month, in which he repudiated the "old economic orthodoxy" and argued for a "popular capitalism", or "capitalism with a conscience", to replace "markets without morality".
One left-of-centre politician who does take Cameron and Blond seriously is Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham, and another speaker at Blond's coronation last month as the Conservative Party's philosopher-king. "We, Labour, ignore Blond's work at our peril," Cruddas says. "There's a fault line running through the history of conservatism, between liberal-economic conservatism and a richer, more paternalistic tradition. Phillip's trying to rehabilitate the second one. What it does is allow the Conservatives to use a different language, a discourse about our obligations to others that is much richer than the Thatcherite brutality built around a notion of atomised economic exchange."
Blond saw Thatcherite "brutality" close up. He was born 42 years ago in Liverpool into a large working-class family. His experience of growing up in the city as it was being ravaged, first by recession and then by deindustrialisation, has clearly shaped his politics, giving it an elegiac, nostalgic tone. "I lived in the city when it was being eviscerated," he says. "It was a beautiful city, one of the few in Britain to have a genuinely indigenous culture. And that whole way of life was destroyed."
He left Liverpool to go to Hull University, and then moved to Warwick to study for a Master's degree in Continental philosophy. One of his contemporaries there remembers him announcing himself as a "Catholic socialist", though Blond disputes that.
"I'm not a socialist and I'm an Anglican. But I have always been interested in Catholic social thought, which always made the argument that capitalism and communism are species of the same thing. Both are forms of disempowerment. But I also think that's a Tory insight."
A central feature of his Toryism is a critique of “liberalism”, a term capacious enough in his hands to apply to the cultural libertarianism of the 1960s as well as to the great philosophers of the liberal tradition, such as Locke or Mill. According to Blond, what the post-1968 “politics of desire” shares with those liberal titans, and in fact also with the Thatcherite or neoliberal model of rational economic behaviour, is a certain idea of individual human beings.
In the liberal view, at least as Blond characterises it, the defence of individual freedom, in its most extreme form, demands of each man that "he refuse the dictates of any other". In other words, liberal autonomy entails the repudiation of society, and no vision of the common good can be derived from liberal principles. The atomised dystopia of 21st-century Britain, the "broken society" overseen by a highly centralised bureaucratic state, turns out to have been the historic bequest of Locke and Mill.
This is contentious, to say the least. Several commentators, notably the Oxford political theorist Stuart White, have criticised the history of liberalism that underpins the Red Tory thesis. White points out that the fundamental principles of justice articulated in the work of a liberal philosopher such as John Rawls amount to a vision of the "common good", and that for Rawls those principles impose just the sort of civic obligations on citizens that Blond regards as desirable, but to which he thinks liberals are fatally indifferent.
Although Blond insists that his religious commitment has little influence on his politics ("The only sense in which my religiosity comes across in my politics is that it's universal: I want a politics that cares for all"), his theological background is discernible in these arguments about the historical legacy of liberalism. As a postgraduate student and later as an academic theologian, he was closely associated with a school known as Radical Orthodoxy. The principal intellectual influences on this strain of theology are the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and John Milbank, who supervised Blond's doctorate at Peterhouse, Cambridge in the early 1990s, and now teaches at the University of Nottingham.
Radical Orthodoxy seeks to revive a credal Christianity that was progressively obscured from the late Middle Ages onwards, and it makes that recovered Christian vision the basis of a systematic critique of modern, secular society. "Modernity," Milbank has said, "is liberalism, liberalism is capitalism and capitalism is atheism." The problem with secular liberalism, for proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, is that, in removing God, it loses any grip on the notion of objective moral truth. Secularism leads to nihilism, because it leaves "worldly phenomena" such as morality "grounded literally in nothing".
Milbank is convinced that Blond's latest incarnation as a political thinker is continuous with his earlier identity as a theologian, and that Red Toryism is merely the "political translation" of Radical Orthodoxy. "Part of Radical Orthodoxy's argument," he tells me, "is that since the 1960s a kind of non-liberal left has faded away somehow, and what you've got now is a left that increasingly defines itself in terms of secular liberalism. We argue that if you want to criticise liberal capitalism, you've got to realise that this is the form that secularity will take. Capitalism gets rid of the sacred. If there's no sacred, everything will be commodified. We argue that you need to re-enchant the world if you are to criticise or modify capitalism."
The practical, political differences between Blond and his former teacher - Milbank identifies himself as a man of the left - are less significant than their shared commitment to this theological vision. "Phillip has always seen himself as a Tory, whereas for me the political resources lie in a Christian socialist tradition," Milbank says.
He suggests that the distinctive intellectual atmosphere of Blond's old college at Cambridge was a fertile breeding ground for Toryism. "Peterhouse always represented a kind of non-Thatcherite, communitarian right."
Although Blond never met Maurice Cowling, the conservative historian and doyen of a previous generation of "intellectual Tories", who retired from Peterhouse in 1993, he reveres many of the figures whom Cowling enlisted in the "Christian counter-revolution" against what he termed the "post-Christian consensus": for example, Thomas Carlyle, G K Chesterton and Hilaire