In Defence of Liberty

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Against Red Toryism

In the fallout of the financial crisis, many political philosophies were resurrected to explain its cause or ameliorate its effects.  One of these philosophies was Red Toryism, championed by Anglian theologian and political thinker Phillip Blond, which Blond claims rests in “the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism”. Blond was identified by The Telegraph in 2010 as “a driving force behind David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda”. Given his think tank ResPublica was present as several fringe events at the 2012 Conservative Conference; Mr Blond’s ideas may still have significant influence over the largest political party in the British House of Commons. Mr Blond lays out his political philosophy in his book Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How We can Fix it and in the Prospect magazine article Rise of the Red Tories.

Arguing from the modern state of British society, Blond claims that “the legacy of liberalism produces both state authoritarianism and atomised individualism”, culminating in the assertion that:

Unlimited liberalism produces atomised relativism and state absolutism.

Blond identifies liberalism as a philosophy founded in the 18th century as a criticism of arbitrary regal authority. He then claims that “the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society”, drawing an equivalence between the power of a monarch over their subjects and the influences that we each have on one another. However, ‘a person must be free from influences’ is not an extreme form of the statement ‘a person must be free from arbitrary dictates’. These are categorically different statements, as the latter requires the use of coercive force and the former does not. It is a catachresis for Blond to label this rebellion against influences and society, the belief that you must be free from all influences, as “unlimited liberalism”. Even if Blond’s assertion were true, that this belief was “the most extreme form” of liberalism, it would not be possible to discard an entire political philosophy on the basis of the critique of its extremities.

The “state absolutism”, which Blond views as a necessary product of “unlimited liberalism”, is actually the “powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals”: courts. The provision of courts is one of the state’s most basic functions, and allows individuals and groups to settle disputes in an institution and manner that both sides of a disagreement respect. Providing courts cannot be seen as the escalation in the powers of the state, much less “state absolutism” or “state authoritarianism”, as Blond describes it.

Blond’s next catachresis occurs when he heralds David Cameron’s civic conservatism as a “break with the monopoly logic of the market state”. In order to achieve this rhetorical quip, Blond defines an unusual type of ‘monopoly’, called a ‘modal monopoly’:

[A] model of monopoly that extends beyond whether an individual has undue market influence to whether a certain mode or way doing business constitutes a cartel.

The example Blond cites of this type of ‘monopoly’ is that of global credit, which Blond claims had absorbed all systems of local, regional and national credit. However, there are over 500 credit unions in Britain, pay-day and alternate lenders, and the Co-Operative bank only engages in “ethical banking”. International banks have not formed a cartel over lending, and even their market shares in Britain are under threat. Virgin Money is also taking customers from the larger British banks. The only way that this wide variety of lenders ‘constitutes a cartel’ is that all money-lending services in Britain must submit themselves to overview by the Financial Services Authority, with the appropriate protection of money accounts.

The relevance of a political philosophy may be derived from its policy prescription. Blond recommends that the Post Office should be extended into a “new, parallel banking system”, the creation of local investment trusts, devolving local government procurement, politically break with big business and the dissolution of supermarkets.

If we assume that Blond’s previous arguments about the nature of global credit are valid, then his first two suggestions, the extension of Post Office banking and statutory systems of local investment, are the establishment of new monopolies. This runs completely counter to Blond’s previous concerns over the “monopoly logic of the market state”. Indeed, with the implication that Post Office banking would be run to different rules and standards than current banks, this would be the creation of an actual monopoly.

Blond then gives the following evidence for his desire for local government procurement to favour local providers: “A 2005 study by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) showed that every pound spent with a local supplier generated £1.76 locally, while every pound spent with outside suppliers generated only 36p.” This is a fallacy of composition: one local government may change its procurement practices to favour local suppliers, and potentially receive the ‘gain’ to the local economy claimed by the NEF, but all local governments could not do this simultaneously and “inject” money into their local economies.

It is then claimed that the Conservative Party should politically sever ties with big business. I actually agree with Blond on this point, but not for the same reasons: there is a vast chasm between being pro-business and pro-market. Blond states that:

We must end a model in which competition is reduced to a cartel of vast corporations maximising profits by discouraging competitors and minimising wages by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration. A covert alliance between the liberal left and liberal right has destroyed incomes and identity at the bottom of the scale.

For clarity, Blond means that big business has discouraged competition, and sought to minimise wages by encouraging mass immigration. Despite the possible existence of this “covert alliance”, big business, as represented through the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), only demonstrate an interest in skilled workers and students coming to Britain. The CBI generally supports the changes in the immigration system.

Lastly, he makes a demand for the Conservative Party to break up supermarkets, which along with mobile phone companies are referred to as “unrecognised private sector monopolies”. Blond reveals his misunderstanding over the ascendancy of supermarkets: customers choose supermarkets because they offer convenience, low prices and consistency of product standards. Blond states that “In the name of competition we have happily handed over our high streets to Tesco, strangling local commerce.” It is simply that customers have chosen Tesco and other supermarkets as an alternative to other local suppliers of fresh food, and it should not fall to the government, local or national, to override the legitimate and repeated choices of customers.

Notwithstanding his status as an intellectual influencing the Conservative Party, Phillip Blond’s arguments are usually built on the distortion of plain words. Blond writes in an overtly obtuse style, meaning that his arguments wither and putrefy behind a prison wall of obscurantism.  Blond also mocks politicians such as Ed Miliband for being unable to “promote community without government”, whilst suggesting a series of government measures to promote local communities. Whilst Conservatives naturally support the view of society expressed in the Burkean ‘little platoons’, Blond’s methods, arguments and analyses are defective, even though this particular end is desirable. Despite the outer attractiveness of Phillip Blond’s philosophy, it is rather hollow: Red Toryism is a Kinder Surprise with no toy.

Related Reading:

Rise of the Red Tories by Phillip Blond (Prospect magazine)

Cameron’s Crank by Jonathon Raban (London Review of Books)

Update:

As the commenter Fred Franks has pointed out, I have misread Blond’s passage on mass immigration. I had originally thought that the quote read “We must end the model… by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration.” However, with piercing clarity, I see that it actually reads “a cartel of vast corporations” is “minimising wages by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration”. I will reproduce that section of my original piece here:

It is then claimed that the Conservative Party should back mass immigration. Whilst I actually agree with Blond on this point, his argument for this position is flawed:

We must end a model in which competition is reduced to a cartel of vast corporations maximising profits by discouraging competitors and minimising wages by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration. A covert alliance between the liberal left and liberal right has destroyed incomes and identity at the bottom of the scale.

Despite Blond’s worries about people on lower incomes, the bottom end of income-earners is the section of workers that suffers from a small declination of income due to mass immigration.

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3 comments on “Against Red Toryism

  1. Fred Franks
    January 25, 2013

    Basically you have failed to read Blond, if you look again, he is saying “We must end a model … ” that is effectively a cartel that reduces competition by “minimising wages ” [by ] “encourag[ing] mass immigration” – that is, Blond is rejecting mass immigration as a system for keeping wages low. This is something that is happening in the agricultural sector, where workers from abroad are not familiar with the basic wage and accept wages that undercut local workers. I do not agree with Blond on a large part of his analysis – nor am I ideologically anti-immigrant, but his point here – immigration as part of an anti-competitive system by a small number of powerful businesses – is well presented.

    • Anthony Masters
      January 25, 2013

      Thanks for pointing that out. Clearly, I have misread that passage, and changed the article to respect the correct reading.

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2012 by in National Politics and tagged , , , , , .
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