Red Toryism – some ideas for both left and right?

Before Malcolm Turnbull’s undignified eviction from office, Professor James Allan had already written him off as an electoral disaster. In the Courier Mail in July of last year, Allan reasoned that Turnbull, as a ‘red tory’, was doomed. Allan used the term ‘red tory’ merely to mean someone on the left of a right-wing party, but the idea of red toryism can be much more interesting than that. In the UK, where the Tory star (at least until recently) was rising higher and higher, David Cameron has latched on to Phillip Blond, a philosopher and theologian who has been winning much attention from political commentators on the left and the right. Blond’s re-booting of red toryism provides both an interesting critique of 21st century capitalism and a range of intriguing, if flawed, policy ideas that are relevant to political debate in Australia – and not just to the Tories’ Liberal Party counterparts.

In February 2009 Blond’s article on the ‘Rise of the Red Tories’ outlined the decline of British democracy and the possibilities for its renewal. His ideas were received with more enthusiasm than Blond had dared to hope, and within months he was the head of a new think tank, launched by Cameron, called Res Publica. Blond describes a rotten economic settlement that was the responsibility of both Labour and the Tories and that had culminated, by the start of the twenty-first century, in a combination of disempowering and atomistic individualism and the concentration of economic power in state and corporate monopolies. Blond’s (at times historically unconvincing) narrative is one in which the Left has succumbed to ‘a kind of social libertarianism, a sort of an indifference to community, an indifference to the ties that bind, and a hostility to anything but normative culture’. The problem for the Right on the other hand is ‘the widespread support for sort of neo-liberal economics, for a commitment to ‘the market works, and whatever the market delivers is in the best interests of all parties‘.  In Blond’s view, ‘the legacy of liberalism produces both state authoritarianism and atomised individualism’.

To redress this state of affairs, Blond proposes not a US-style ‘morals plus markets’ approach but rather a new ‘progressive conservatism’, in which a local and community-oriented vision would prevail. For a future Conservative government (Blond believes Labour is ‘moribund’ and can’t enact the required transformation) he prescribes four tasks: ‘relocalising our banking system, developing local capital, helping normal people gain new assets and breaking up big business monopolies.

There are a number of difficulties with Blond’s analysis. He rarely, for example, acknowledges the undeniable gains – for women, for civil rights – that liberalism and social and sexual liberalisation have achieved. Nor, despite diagnosing the loss of a shared morality as a key aspect of the decline of British society, does he suggest a source for a new, restored system of community values. Although Blond is a theologian, he neither discusses secularisation as relevant to the decline of common morality, nor proposes a re-energised religious faith as a solution. He restricts himself largely to economic solutions, perhaps assuming that re-localised economies will naturally drive stronger communities to decide such issues for themselves. Crucial to his project is the idea of breaking up large monopolies and restoring capital to the little people: yet the question of how to keep capital in little hands after redistribution remains troubling. Paradoxically, since red tories rail against big government, it might require strong government intervention (through tax incentives perhaps) to discourage, for example, the gradual absorption of small farms into large conglomerations.

Nevertheless, Blond and Res Publica have some interesting ideas for pursuing an alternative to both an all-powerful market and an all-powerful state, which are worth considering in the Australian context, including:

  • Collective ownership of public services, in which staff would have collective ownership over the services they deliver, similar in structure to the retailer John Lewis in the UK.
  • Creating a ‘community right to buy’, by allowing local communities to buy and run services (such as post offices) that would otherwise be shut down.
  • Addressing sell-offs of iconic companies (in the UK, for example, the recent takeover of Cadbury by Kraft)
  • A government matching programme for child trust funds for those in the lowest income groups.

There are also intriguing implications for red toryism if it’s applied to responses to the problem of climate change – which, perhaps strangely, Blond seems to have so far failed to do. The localisation of the economy (reversing the sucking whirlpool that drags all of the UK’s capital and talent to London) has possibilities for assisting the development of low-carbon communities with strong local economies built on small businesses and co-operatives.

Blond’s red tory ideology is built on a kind of distributism, an ideology relatively absent in Australian politics in recent times (although it has been important to parts of the Labor Party in the past). Its exploration in the Australian context could make for an interesting discussion, about shared values, meaning beyond consumerism, and negotiating a path between individualism and collectivism. There is plenty of room for debate about the value of Blond’s ideas, and there are plenty of questions still to be asked. The rapid assimilation of red toryism into David Cameron’s election strategy, however, indicates that Blond’s ideas have power, and are worth a hearing.

Further reading: New York Times on Blond