The onward march of progressive conservatism?
A theologian whose forthcoming book 'Red Tory' is a much-anticipated event in the world of UK political publishing is imagining a quantum leap in conservative thought and practice.
I first met Phillip Blond at a Cumberland Lodge conference on religion and public life some eighteen months or more ago. We enjoyed a rumbustious conversation or two in the post-seminar bar. At that point he was a lecturer in theology at the University of Cumbria and a significant figure in Radical Orthodoxy, the movement whose post-modern Augustinianism has blended an elite Christian Socialism with what seems to amount to a defence of Christendom (though whether and in what way it is a re-assertion is not always clear.)
There is some exciting deconstruction of received pieties, both secular and religious, in the work of Blond and his associates - along with what some see as a more worrying neo-theocratic tendency, of the kind lucidly critiqued, inter alia, by Nicholas Lash in chapter 9 of his 2008 collection, Theology for Pilgrims (http://tinyurl.com/cdx6kn).
Now, Phillip Blond has turned his attention towards deconstructing and reconstructing politics from a characteristically askance location and perspective.
In a recent Prospect (http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10608) article, 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. The current political consensus [is] left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be.
Tory leader David Cameron's emphasis on social and welfare reform (which is still patrician in style, but draws on the 'social justice' language patently rejected by Thatcherism), is built on the prosperity of the past decade. But this is coming to an end. Meanwhile decentralisation, mutualism and voluntary association may be socially compelling but have not had economic legs, says social democrat commentator Will Hutton (The State We're In) and others.
Blond's Red Tory thesis is that the Conservatives can meet this challenge. To do so, the argument goes, 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, points out Jonathan Derbyshire in his New Statesman profile (http://tinyurl.com/cuqbo5).
On this basis, Blond is calling for a "new communitarian settlement" (cf. Etzioni), 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.
This project is not lacking in ambition. Says Blond:
[S]uch policies will help conservatives create a transformative red Tory manifesto. They 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. In doing so, [David] Cameron can finally bring together the Tory tradition of Disraeli's reform of capitalism with his own entirely justified desire to be a "social radical." It would render the left superfluous and redefine Marx as just another dispossessor of the poor. Moreover it would recover the insights of 19th-century conservatives like Cobbett, Ruskin and Carlyle, ally them with Tawney and the distributism of Chesterton, Belloc and Skelton—all of who knew that, without something to trade, one cannot enter a market. Making markets truly free prevents corporate domination, but also extends ownership, prosperity and innovation across the whole of society. The task of recapitalising the poor is, therefore, the task of making the market work for the many, not the few.
There are some very commendable ideas in the 'progressive conservatism' project, now officially sponsored by left-leaning thinktank Demos (http://www.demos.co.uk/projects/progressiveconservatism/overview). But it is hard to square with the acquisitive, socially hierarchical and socially authoritarian instincts within the party as a whole - one that was built, and is sustained, by a hardwired defence of privilege and inequality.
At the moment, David Cameron is trying to solidify a voter base in an electorate which his party has lost touch with. Blond believes him to be a man of principle, contrary to many assessments. But when the blue blood flows after the next General Election, it is likely that the Red Tories will be swept away in the tide.
At the moment, though, it is highly popular in some circles, and not just 'the usual ones'. I bumped into Phillip again after the Convention on Modern Liberty (28 February 2009) at the Institute of Education in London. He was heading off to supper with Guardian commentator Jenni Russell. Sure enough, a Red Tory piece appeared a couple of days later: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/03/conservatives-david-...
Not that everyone was convinced: http://momentsofc.blogspot.com/2009/03/jenni-russell-flys-kite.html
Meanwhile, the interesting question arises as to how far Blond's politics is shaped and influenced by his theology. On this, Blond says: (in a gnomic New Statesman quote) "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". It sounds a bit like Steve Chalke's professed desire for his social projects to be judged on results rather than beliefs.
I'm less than convinced about this not-so-neat divide. The sacralization of general politics is a bad thing, because it ideologises religion and mystifies political process. But as a Christian engaged in political processes from the perspective of a community called to model something radically different from a polity driven my force, commodification and exclusion, I would want my theological agenda to be open. Not 'Christian politics' but politics done by Christians who have repented of the misuse of power by institutions claiming to embody their ideals (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/barrow/article_2003_09_7_2737.shtml) - and who want to invite others towards a comparable radical shift.
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