Tory Britain? Part 1: Red Blondism

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 December 2009

I went to the launch of Phillip Blond’s ResPublica think tank and had a parallel but very different shock to Guy Aitchison at the London Citizens at the Barbican. He witnessed a real ‘community politics’ (which Blond calls for) coming to life as you can tell from Guy’s vivid account.

ResPublica found its very different form of life in the glitzy ballroom of Whitehall’s Royal Horseguards Hotel. It was packed with over 300 people. For the launch of a think tank this was a mob! I can recall the founding press conference of ippr, with an anxious Tessa Blackstone in the chair introducing James Cornford to a handful of us….

Who were the suits that turned out for ResPublica? According to the Independent’s Andrew Grice they “included many of the best brains in the political and think-tank world”. But this description could not have extended to more than 50 of those present, at its most generous. The crowd were from the policy arms of ministries and financial institutions, apparatchiks of the machinery of consultancy created under New Labour’s Quango regime. Not so much the political class as its lieutenants and commissars.  They were there to tick the box ‘seen the likely next Prime Minister’. In other words, to learn how to present and position oneself when pitching to the incoming master of the state.

There are some crippling weaknesses to Red Blondism in its initial incarnation. This makes it easy to mock, sneer and dismiss on the lines of the classic blogjerk from Hopi Sen in Liberal Conspiracy (though he scores one good point I’ll come to). But the phenomenon needs to be taken seriously. ‘Red Toryism’ may prove to be the ‘Third Way’ of Cameron politics. But this itself is significant. It might mean, for example, that Cameronism is going to fail. Or that it will put up a fight that may surprise. After all, who on the left is putting forward in a single, overarching presentation, an integrated project to reform the state, the economy and civil society? With all etc. to Compass and Demos, no one - apart from PASOK in Greece, now struggling with the Greek overdraft.

So now is the moment to consider the phenomenon, the role of ideas in British politics today, their weakness when it comes to the British state and what is happening now to project Cameron. This will turn out to be a long, two part essay (Sunny be warned!)

The launch of ResPublica got amazing coverage. Perhaps the absence of any policy helped the media as they had nothing to cover except the positioning and novelty of Cameron. And this fits easily into the narcissism of the torrent.

But there seems to be an unrequited feeling that we need ideas. Blond said thanks to Cameron for introducing him, and launched into a speech that was more like a lecture to the 300.

For a pre-lunch launch in Whitehall it was an unashamedly conceptual analysis. Britain, he told us, needs “a civil state”, that would break down the present “monolithic” one to become an “associative state”. Second, the country needed “moralised markets” based on trust because the neo-liberal market is nether efficient nor free (indeed, in a rather striking claim, Blond points out that because neo-liberalism posits a ruthless, amoral economic actor that “obeys no external codes”, market fundamentalism “requires” a strong regulatory and interventionist state). Third, to bind these changes together we had to create an associative society: “Association marks the politics of the future it is the way we will deliver our state and it is the way we will free our market”. Blond talked sympathetically and unashamedly about the working class. When did a Labour or Liberal thing tank make the state of “the working class” a major theme?

David Marquand has argued that Cameron follows in the tradition of Harold Macmillan’s Whig imperialism. I’m sure he’d like to. But that form of politics  exercised its influence by denying the importance of ideas. What mattered was capable administration and not making too great a fuss. Indeed this anti-ideological impulse was a powerful weapon of rule. It put the political class beyond challenge with no need of political intellectuals. It was also reinforced by a philistine Labour movement that despised anything that smacked of theory.

This legacy was handbagged by Margaret Thatcher. She was an ideologist. For a long time this was perceived as being her character defect rather than the start of a cultural transformation.

Thus when Charter 88 was launched we consciously pit ourselves against the suffocating legacy of turning politics into narrow policies - and constitutional principles into legalistic squabbles. We consistently engaged with new ideas, from human rights to economic participation, and in so far as we could with leading writers and thinkers. I saw this as trying to take advantage of the opening Thatcher offered.

But when Blair, Mandelson and Brown took over the Labour party in the mid-nineties they defaulted back to regarding ideas as dangerous, under the baleful influence of Alistair Campbell. Despite a flirtation with Demos under Geoff Mulgan as a force that looked ‘outside the box’, the constant emphasis was on delivery. After becoming Prime Minister Blair himself sensed this wasn’t good enough. Ever the master of the zeitgeist he was not at ease with tropes of the old farts.

So - against Campell’s advice - he launched The Third Way, inviting a carefully selected group of intellectuals to No 10. They did not include Labour’s best-read and most formidable intellectual, Gordon Brown! Almost certainly one aim was to provide Blair with the intellectual kudos to upstage the Chancellor. I’ve explained before that the most important word in ‘The Third Way’ was the word ‘The’. The search for something between the extremes of the pure market and the unfettered state that ResPublica now claims in its turn is hardly new – it is the space for all democratic politics. With so many possibilities, a space for pluralism. But it was absolutely not Blair’s aim to encourage the many not the few to find their own passage between Scylla and Charybdis, between the whirlpool of the free market and the devouring appetite of the state! The point was that he had to lead the way, hence there could only be one way, hence The Third Way.

There remained the problem of what on earth it meant in the sense of a term that could be offered to the press. If my memory serves, Peter Kellner was reported to have been at the meeting and he proposed ‘the way’ could be summed up in the soundbite of “mutuality”. This was greeted with the leader’s acclamation. In the ResPublica launch leaflet, Philip Blond seeking to steer his fellow Conservatives between the dehumanising whirlpool of the naked market and the devouring nanny state “proposes… a new mutualism”. Ouch!

It is not that mutualism is bad it can be wonderful. But at such an abstract level its attraction is being conscripted. For once, Alistair Campbell was canny. The Third Way proved a public relations disaster and fell swiftly from derision into desuetude. Nonetheless the media exposure it got is echoed in the coverage of Red Toryism. However shallow and faddish, there seems to be a craving for conceptualisation and a feeling that ideas are needed and principles are lacking.

Cameron may have wanted to be a Whig Imperialist, but he feels it essential to play to the gallery of intellectual novelty, theoretical frameworks and the definition of principles. All of which means there is no going back to the era when we all knew ‘naturally’ what it meant to be who we were, the foundation of British conservatism.

A revolution from the received wisdom of 20th  century conservatism, both Labour and Tory, has taken place.

Over at Prospect, James Crabtree paid Cameron and Blond the compliment of  being puzzled as to what they are up to, sensing that the direction of the next government may be at stake. Sunder Katwala made a sharper attempt to get at the policy contradictions in Blondism, and Grice made the sharp journalists point that while Blond was reactionary on social and sexual issues but to the left on economic ones, Cameron was the opposite.

I suspect there are two more important contradictions, one internal, the other a fact of life in Britain. Advancing his argument for associational state and society, Blond launched into an argument to show that simply in terms of transaction costs the trust that would result would lead to a far better market capitalism:

a capitalism based on trust does not require external regulation or control. A capitalism based on reciprocity, free open and honest exchange has little bureaucracy or state power associated with it. A civil economy drives down the cost of suspicion that self-interest creates and crowds in good rather than bad behaviour. A culture of internal ethos rather than external regulation creates a whole new model of social capitalism that radically reduces the barriers to market entry that suspicion creates and it prices in the very things that human being most value and like about each other: trust human affection and open and honest behavior. We can create a civic economy based on trust, sustainability and reciprocity.

If this has a familiar ring to it, it is surely because it is a description of gentlemanly capitalism. This is how the City of London made it in the first place, by being a market in which a man’s word was his bond. This kind of trust needs an enormously strong institutional framework and social sanctions to work, especially where money is concerned. Can we really go back to it?

Oddly enough William Rees-Mogg synergistically addressed this question in the Mail on Sunday, starting with his own reflections twenty years ago in 1989:

Free and open markets may be the key to financial success, but if they are to operate fairly and honestly someone has to write the rules and see that they are rigidly enforced... but much more important are the unwritten rules and the will to abide by them. In the end it is the loyalty and good sense of the citizens themselves which make the whole system work…. What worries people about the City is the suspicion that it will only obey written rules, that it has lost its sense of unwritten rules and the will to abide by them.

He then adds:

If that was the case in 1989, it is certainly the case in 2009. The City used to operate on a much less legalistic basis than Wall Street; the City's code was based on one's word being one's bond.

Philip Blond would like us all to go back to that world. He presents it as something that he has thought of for the first time. Far from being fresh, trust not ideas was the old order. He can hardly blame its breakdown on the left! But even it he does, it’s broke. In its nature it can’t be returned to consciously this side of a modern democratic, rule-based polity that people can begin to trust.

To put this another way, seen from outside I am tempted to retune a phrase of Neil Ascherson. The associational politics that Blond argues for, and which recalls Paul Hirst’s Associational Democracy, is all very well. But one is as likely to get associationism from the British state as milk from a vulture.

It’s the lack of traction with reality that may have persuaded Cameron that Blond ‘isn’t a danger’. He wants the working class to form its own associations but does not seem to think these include trade unions. He calls for tenants to take charge of the services to their estates as if this has never happened – the good point made by Hopi Sen. He calls for a new civil state but doesn’t mention the House of Lords.

Blond’s body language is refreshingly unservile, direct and lacking in cynicism and Blairite jokiness. At the launch, for example, there were no grandees on the platform, no chairman to introduce him, it was all him and Cameron’s graceful welcome. But you don’t change society unless your ideas are organised and bring together an alliance of forces. There was no sense of what this might except for access to the leader, making Red Toryism appear to be utterly dependent upon the head of the Tory Party even more than The Third Way depended on Blair.

This was reinforced for me when I asked myself who was paying for it all. If I was that interested, I’d ask. What struck me was the lack of transparency. The website promised that all would be announced, but it wasn’t. We can now learn that there are some fellows including the brilliant Will Davies (an OurKingdom author) - but strangely he hasn’t yet written about it on Potlatch.

As for the cash. Blond thanked a ‘Canary Wharf Group’ and said of the rest “You know who you are”. To which one can only respond, “may we know who they are?” Can a think tank really expect to be taken seriously in its appeal to mutuality if it does not even announce who its backers are?

Strikingly absent from Blond’s critique was any analysis of the failures of democracy in Britain, its institutions, the fate of historic liberties, the incoming pressures of the database state. Here too there was a lack of traction – shared by most of the left as Stuart White has pointed out – but all the more striking in the context of a supposedly innovate overview of the failings in British society and what conservatives should do about them.

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