Great Britain is in trouble—politically, economically, and culturally—and Phillip Blond wants to change this. He blames both the political right and the left for having created an atomistic society in which all pursue self-interest to the detriment of society as a whole.
Blond explains how Britain got into this predicament and then gives several chapters offering ways out. He advocates a return to an older and more radical conservatism, one rooted in community and tradition. This is what he terms a “Red Tory” conservatism (as opposed to the “Blue Tory” variety, which champions the market). The final chapter focuses on David Cameron, the current prime minister, who Blond believes can deliver Britain from her current woes. Blond, a former theology and philosophy professor, is now an economic advisor to Cameron and wrote this book partly as a political tract before the 2010 election. But it is more than that. Red Tory is a penetrating critique of Britain’s problems, as well as those of much of the Western world.
Blond begins with the recent economic crisis, which reveals the hollowness of the modern liberal project. The root of the crisis is the Anglo-American transatlantic financial system created by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Their policies effected many needed economic reforms. But they also centralized financial power, creating a culture of money that penetrated every facet of life. One impact on the average citizen was access to credit. This allowed for a rapid increase in consumption and “lifestyle” choices. But, as the financial system expanded, controls on securing debt were reduced. Even the most stable and widespread form of wealth—property—became leveraged and eventually a commodity traded by global speculators. As the system receded, it left extensive indebtedness, both public and private. Britain’s national debt is over 400 percent of her GDP; at the individual level, Britain has become a land of indentured homeowners.
Government expanded greatly to manage this anarchic “free” market system. Thatcher accomplished this, paving the way for the victory of New Labour in the 1990’s. Like the Clinton Democrats, New Labour embraced both big government and big business. The left now accepted the market, as it offered everyone equal access to a range of lifestyle choices.
Although the Thatcher and Blair regimes dramatically enlarged the power of the state, Blond notes that this increase is part of a decades-long trend. World War II was a critical watershed, as the state mobilized all of society to win the war and then maintained its control to create a peacetime society, continuing to justify expansion into further social spheres in the name of equity and justice.
The decline of British culture paralleled the growth of the state. Blond singles out the intellectual class as a catalyst for cultural destruction. What began as a narrow artistic and intellectual critique in the 19th century, he says, became a mass social movement in the 20th. By the 1960’s, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll had become the new social ethos.
The right disdained these vulgar forms of self-gratification and assumed a new social smugness. But it enjoys a false status, based purely on wealth. To Blond, right and left are the same in setting material self-gratification as their existential goal. Britain has a new social hierarchy based not on birth or behavior, but on material criteria alone.
The cost of this new type of emancipation has been twofold. First, there has been an almost total destruction of the associational life, based on participation in intermediary associations such as unions, clubs, civic organizations, and churches. These associations gave the common citizen a means of social and political engagement. They also provided a necessary bulwark against state and market intrusion. But as people became more reliant on state and market, the interest in, and need for, local participation dwindled.
These intermediary associations also helped cultivate virtue, making civilized life possible. The recognition of the good under modern liberalism is almost impossible, because each person defines “the good” differently. This moral relativism has now become the ethos of Britain (and indeed of the entire West). Blond calls attention to the great irony in this new concept of freedom, which is that it is static: The simple acceptance of people as they are means that nothing is demanded of them, and therefore that they never change. Here again, the intellectual class has been the vociferous defender of “freedom” and has successfully inculcated it into society.
Perhaps the most critical force in destroying intermediary associations and communal life has been the spread of technology—a social phenomenon about which Phillip Blond has nothing to say. Yet technology is the great facilitator of the modern lifestyle and renders direct reliance on people less important. As it grows in complexity, it requires ever-larger bureaucracies (government and business) for its financing, production, and distribution. These bureaucracies are often the only ones capable of dealing with the risks and costs of modern technology, which become more distant and abstract with each technological generation. Even states must now rely on global markets and institutions to accomplish this unwieldy task.
The technological genie cannot be put back into the bottle. But a more serious discussion of the social impact of technology and ways to curtail its negative effects must be had. The rebuilding of intermediary associations is one important step in this direction. And it is here—albeit for political, economic, and cultural reasons—that Blond offers practical solutions.
He argues for a more ethical economy, one still centered on the free market but with a more localized focus. An example that has worked in Britain and elsewhere is business partnership between management, labor, and consumers. This creates greater long-term stability because all have an interest in its success. Blond cites also programs like land trusts that employ local farmers who supply local (and loyal) consumers, and he argues for similar shifts in government. The state must become more decentralized and accountable to its citizens. This can only happen through greater citizen involvement and changes in the old and costly top-down management models to promote flexible ones that use field workers’ experience as a basis for policymaking.
Blond emphasizes environmental protection, which he sees as a cultural, more than a scientific or an economic, issue. The desire to protect land, forests, and wildlife is essential to a civilized society. Yet he does not mention the high environmental costs of a modern liberal society. An individualistic society consumes far more resources per capita than does a traditional communal one. And neither does he mention a new role for the old aristocracy, now marginalized politically and economically—though the aristocratic class could play a more important role in both environmental and cultural conservation than it does today. An aristocrat no less significant than Prince Charles has long been an enthusiast for the arts and communal development, especially in rural areas where such things are most needed.
Still, the most important task facing Britain is the revival of traditional British culture, which Blond believes must be based on the cultivation of virtue. This is a difficult undertaking, not only because defining the good is difficult in an atomistic society, but because people must first believe they have lost something before they want to retrieve it. It becomes even more problematic in the multicultural society—with its many different and conflicting ideas of the good—that Britain is quickly becoming through mass immigration.
The author does not dwell on immigration. Neither does he discuss the multiculturalist ideology, which has nothing to do with culture, but rather politics. The proposed creation of a multicultural society is really a divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens the dominant culture. As cultures multiply, the cultural authority of each cultural tradition actually diminishes relative to the power of market and state, which in the end become the only legitimate authorities.
Blond considers himself a philosophical liberal in the tradition of Chesterton and Belloc, who believed a free society is one where all have access to higher culture. Thus, he recognizes the importance of religion and an objective moral order. And he defends the Greek and Christian foundation of British tradition. But he says nothing of the collapse of Christianity in Britain, and of how churches are the most important of all intermediary organizations. Religion is the basis of all culture, and of a healthy society. His analysis at times reminds one of Chesterton’s quip that liberals may be able to pick up all the pieces, but can they make them stick? The glue, of course, is religious faith.
Blond’s ideas for change are really the most important part of the book. But they did not play a central role in the last election, while many critics, like John Gray, see them as idealistic and hopelessly impractical. They are certainly ambitious, but so are those of liberals. It took centuries for liberalism to tear down British tradition. It may take as long to rebuild it. At any rate, conservatives really have little alternative than to begin this process. At a minimum, a sufficiency of little platoons—a remnant—may be able to endure this new dark age of the self and allow civilization to flourish again someday.
[Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It, by Phillip Blond (London: Faber and Faber) 309 pp., $16.85]