Monday, May 31, 2010

Phillip Blond's Red Tory - reviewed

Many reviewers of Phillip Blond's Red Tory have used the word intruiging, others have also lavished greater praise - citing the fact that this former theology lecturer from the University of Cumbria is now the provider of "David Cameron's mood music".

There is little in the aspiration of his central thesis that many can disagree with. Britain is too unequal, there is social breakdown and many positive pillars of a unified British society have been dismantled - friendly societies, churches and community associations. How we got here is one of the strengths of Blond's quite brilliant social history, which the early part takes much from Ferdinand Mount's Mind The Gap, which I also read recently.

Along the way, there is also little that many left leaning thinkers could also take issue with. He nods in the direction of Will Hutton's The State We're In and Anthony Giddens and his Third Way both of whom gave some early initial intellectual ballast to New Labour, but who had their good intentions mislaid along the way. That's the "red" bit. He also picks a thread from various "tory" and conservative traditions, dismally buried under the memory of Thatcherism, which he dismantles wonderfully.

Philosophically, I also like Blond's acknowledgement of "an objective common good" and the nonsense that comes from "an incoherant melange of fact and opinion" - especially in schools.

And his chapter on the way in which a very illiberal version of liberalism has tried to enforce what is supposedly right in society is strong. He doesn't use the example that sprung to my mind: there is no doubt that Britain is a more racially tolerant society. It is, but by the slow creep of politically correct legislation, media hectoring and patronising mind control, so much of that progress has also served to stoke up resentment from white working class people, to the point where a far-right party wins two MEPs in a protest vote election, but has no real bedrock of popular support and Britain is a fairer and more racially tolerant place.

But it is worth noticing more for his bigger picture political conclusions - sweeping, bombastic and stirring - particularly his call for a different role for the state and the market. "We must restore society, and the individuals who comprise it, over both state and market as the sovereign site of our renewal." I'm still not sure what that means. I'm not sure David Cameron does either. But Blond then fleshes this out with some fresh ideas for community land trusts, co-operatives in the public sector and for new microfinance products which all make great common sense and are bound together in his overarching big idea. Where I begin to recoil from its real world application is the thought of how the busy bodies of the PTA clique are the worst possible people to run a school.

Where there is also work to be done is in his thoughts on the economy. Not just because of the job I do, but because of where I'm from, the unheralded and unloved saviours of this country are its entrepreneurs and inventors. Economists and political thinkers so often forget this, or don't see this. They also miss how networks and informal bonds sustain groups of businesses. Blond comes close in his ideas on banking reform, but probably hasn't spoken to enough people who run businesses to grasp what they need from the tax system and from banks, which would quickly give some insights into what they want to do, but he's on the right lines.

This is an important and inspiring book. But, as we see from the first month of the coalition government what becomes very important, very quickly, is less about ideas and more about dealing with events and, sadly, scandals.


Al Shaw said...

Thanks for the interesting review.

I've also been interested in Blond's ideas and find much that makes sense in them, though I agree there is sometimes a lack of policy detail that can be frustrating.

The older economic theory of Distributism shares some of Blond's assumptions about the distortions of the market that exist under developed capitalism and, without embrcing socialism, is stronger on its critique of global firms. In other words, it's a bit more red than Blond.

Michael Taylor said...

Thanks for the comment, Al.

Some useful links on your blogs.