Madeleine Bunting had a thoughtful column in yesterday’s Guardian about the search for political ideas following the implosion of Reaganite deregulated liberalism.
She focusses on Philip Blond, a theology lecturer at the St Martin’s College, Lancaster who in addition to writing a book on Thomas Aquinas is also apparently “giving David Cameron advice on progressive Conservatism”. It was his ideas, she says, “which peppered Cameron’s speech at Davos” and which has, apparently, infuriated Simon Heffer, the infant Tory columnist, who was apparently “apoplectic with fury last week as he lambasted it as terrifying, meaningless, obtuse and infantile”.
Blond may provoke fury and incomprehension on the Tory blogs, but party thinkers such as Oliver Letwin and David Willetts are intrigued. As are the more thoughtful on the Labour backbenches such as Jon Cruddas. Close watchers on the left acknowledge that Blond is opening up ‘potent political territory’ – territory that could go to the Tories but equally could be captured by another, or even a new, party.
The key to understanding Blond’s thinking is that he is reviving a long-neglected tradition of English radical conservatism that goes back to William Cobbett and John Ruskin and which last flourished before the second world war in the thinking of GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. If you are thinking that this kind of stuff can hardly be relevant to our current predicament, think again. From this tradition emerged a passionate attack on both the power of the state and the power of big business. Belloc's argument in The Servile State was that both capitalism and socialism enslaved the masses to their dictates.
Blond picks up these strands of conservative communitarianism and links them to two current critiques. The first is an attack on his own party’s hallowed faith in Thatcherite economics: it’s bust, argues Blond, and led to a form of monopoly capitalism which enriched only a tiny oligarchy. The second is an attack on the managerial technocratic welfare state which has destroyed the mutualism of the working class – and here, he owes much to Ferdinand Mount’s thoughtful Mind the Gap. Third, he attacks liberalism for promoting atomised individualism and moral relativism (which will go down very well with the Daily Mail constituency).
It sounds like a big bag of tricks, and it is; some new, some old, some borrowed, and only some blue.
Bunting goes on to remind her readers that dear old Belloc was an admirer of Mussolini, which brings a useful touch of historical perspective to all this. The lesson of history is that economic turmoil usually brings political and ideological change. The big political question for the industrialised world is whether the new political ideas are civilising or barbaric. Watching Gordon Brown & Co (and Brian Cowen in Ireland) floundering in the wake of the credit crunch one is struck by the thought: is this what the hapless politicians of the Weimar Republic looked like to their electorate? Incompetent, corrupt and out of date.
Footnote: Just realised that Blond studied at Peterhouse — a famous kindergarten for conservative thinkers.