by Sebastian Wright
Two events intervened just prior to my reading of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory‘, which made me doubt the necessity of the exercise. The first was the publication of Jonathan Raban’s wonderfully enjoyable lampooning of it in the London Review of Books, under the title of ‘Cameron’s Crank‘. Whilst Raban is a bit hard on Blond’s writing skills (personally, I think the book is pretty well written; its more the dubious intellectualism at fault) he does a great job of cutting to heart of the parochial, nostalgic sentiment that prevails throughout. In the same issue of the LRB, John Gray reviews a book by Tim Bale on the Conservatives from Thatcher to Cameron, and concurs with Bale’s assessment that, in regard to the Red Tory retreat to socially conservative anti-liberalism, ‘Conservatism of this kind spells potential disaster for Cameron and his party.’
Which leads to the second point. This ‘disaster’ seems to be unfolding in front of our very eyes. With the Blond-inspired ‘Big Society’ idea apparently falling flat on the election trail, and inverse rhetoric about the ‘broken society’ also not winning over many fans, Cameron has recently decided to adopt a tougher, more conventional Conservative message, evident in the Conservative party’s billboard promising to cut the benefits of those who refuse to work.
With such a run of misfortune, and generally poor reviews, one might wonder if expending the energy in reading and reviewing ‘Red Tory’ is worth the effort? I would argue that it is still worth a punt, if only for the fact that with the current paucity of ideas floating about in mainstream politics—and particularly in Conservatism with Thatcherism on the wane—it is unlikely that Red Toryism will just go away. If the best method of defence is attack, I think Marxists should try to keep track of these new ideologies; particularly at crossroads such as the present in which much of the steam of neoliberalism is running out, whilst at the same time massive fiscal deficits surely spell the end of the Third Way social democratic settlement.
So what is there to learn from ‘Red Tory’? Well, if anything, the book suffers from trying to answer too many problems. Blond’s introduction catalogues a litany of complaints about modern Britain (the emphasis is always on ‘our’ country) that almost anyone could find something to agree with—or more likely, join with him in disgruntlement about. Everything from loneliness, to promiscuity, to the financial crisis, to the democratic crisis—to all of these Blond has an answer: Red Toryism. What is it to be a Red Tory? Apparently, it involves returning back to a local ‘associative economy’, where the different classes get along, everyone knows their place, the rich look after the poor, and everyone is joined together in common virtue (and belief—although he keeps a low profile in expounding this last point).
All of this is well documented elsewhere, by myself and other readers of Blond’s work. However, in order to extract some more interesting insights from ‘Red Tory’ Blond’s personal story of why he broke from the left acts as a general lesson in where the left has gone wrong. Not for the reason that Blond’s rejection of the left is to be endorsed, more for the fact that his original affiliation with it signalled all that in my opinion has been wrong with the left since the 1980s. This is a telling quote:
I hated Scargill, yet still sympathised with the miners… What I liked about socialism was its concern with social justice – the idea that our society should be ordered according to principles of equity, goodness and fairness… I could never for the life of me understand why some despised those who differed from them by virtue of social class… And I agreed with the ethical critique of unrestrained capitalism.
Despite the fact that Blond does not have much time for Rawls in Red Tory, he mostly concurs on the categories: justice, ethics, fairness, etc. Everything, that is, other than working class empowerment and action. What ‘Red Tory’ amply demonstrates is the utter uselessness of these notions for advancing a radical, leftwing political cause. At a time when many on the left still call for ‘global justice’ and ‘fairness’ (to use the Lib Dems favourite term, if we can even consider them as left) Blond’s comfort with all these things, whilst proposing an arch-socially conservative vision, demonstrates their ambivalence. The same goes for his endorsement of the environmental agenda, which he counterpoises to the destructive and irresponsible tendencies on the left, epitomized by the likes of Scargill.
It is probably also worth pointing out that Blond does have some good points. For instance, he correctly points to the dissolution of the basis of Third Way style social democracy; he understands that reform in how we vote for Parliament is unlikely to make much difference; and he recognizes the limitations of the state for empowerment. And yet all this is recuperated into a mostly incoherent diatribe that answers few questions immanent to our contemporary social reality. The undercurrent of nationalism and localism is clearly at odds with his feigned concern for immigrants and internationalism. His defence of capitalism is premised on some extremely suspect idealised notions of what capitalism should be, subtracted from any substantial political-economy or empirical studies.
It is hard not to conclude reading ‘Red Tory’ that Blond is simply trying to will back into existence the lost world of warm beer and cricket matches on the village green that John Major once spoke of as the epitome of Britishness. Radicalism, for Blond, means a return to an organic social order; one which arguably never existed, or was only ever kept stable by the patriarchy, racism, nationalism and elitism he is willing to credit the left as having undermined. Since his lost world is one that probably never existed in the first place, nevermind in the 21st century, it is more than likely that these ideas will play the role of rose tinted gloss for a whitewash of the expected privatisations and anti-immigrant purges the Tories will soon be calling for.