Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Is This Another Dumb Blond(e) ?

The Conservatives under David Cameron have been outlining their post-Thatcher philosophy and the guru behind it seems to be one Phillip Blond who is an interesting character with ideas which seem to be shaping the philosophy of Cameron's Conservatives especially with reference to the "broken society".

It's helpful if you want to understand what the next Conservative Government might be like to have a closer look at Blond and his ideas and it's pretty depressing and unsettling stuff.

Blond describes himself as a "red Tory" which is an interesting concept and starts from the premise that conservatism is about preserving and extending that which is good and radically reforming that which isn't. So far, so good...

Blond proposes a variation on capitalism which he calls "popular capitalism" and is strong in his condemnation of what he calls neo-liberalism or perhaps more accurately the concept of market-based laissez-faire capitalism which dominated Conservative thinking from the mid-1970s and which so spectacularly crashed and burned in 2007-08.

The not-unreasonable view is that both State welfarism (or corporatism) and free-market economics have the same consequence - the centralisation of political and economic power in the hands of a small elite be it, in the case of welfarism, the State or as in the case of free-market economics, a small caste of extremely wealthy individuals and organisations.

At the other end of the social and political scale, welfarism and free-market capitalism are equally adept at impoverishing and disenfranchising the poorest in society. Under welfarism, social cohesion is undermined as the "State" becomes the ultimate provider - individuals and communities are not compelled to work together to improve their environment because the State is left to take care of everything. In the free-market system, the market is the only arbiter and that won't get involved in areas of community improvement because of the lack of profit potential. In addition, the free-market model is centred on the self-enriching of the individual who is encouraged to work for themselves and not to see themselves as part of a wider social unit.

Fair enough although I think Blond is looking at a romanticised or idealised concept of working-class communities which probably never existed outside Ealing Studios. Communities do come together at times of crisis and in the past family units were more closely co-located (as was the case with my Mother and her parents) but we are in an economically and culturally different era and Blond, like many conservatives, is wasting too much time and effort trying to put the genie back into the bottle in order to recapture a romanticised ideal that probably never existed.

The "big idea" for Blond and Cameron is the notion of "popular capitalism" and empowering local communities. Again, fine but the Blond/Cameron model looks at local community empowerment not through directly-elected and accountable local authorities but via charities and other local groups that (presumably) can be controlled by the governing Party.

There's a nasty whiff of fascism about all this and it bypasses the concepts of local democracy that conservatives ought to be championning. Giving power to groups like charities, voluntary agencies and school governing bodies is no substitute for the re-generation of local democracy through giving real powers back to locally-accountable and locally-elected bodies. We know that the Conservatives plan to run schools by placing activists on Governing bodies and it's not unreasonable to suppose that the Conservatives will seek to take over other voluntary bodies if they are to be given real resources and responsibilities.

Blond is no fan of liberalism which he equates with moral relativism which is strange because the non-conformist tradition of liberalism was highly moral - just not within the established Church framework. Blond argues that liberty comes not from liberalism but from a more communitarian approach.

There is a strong religious undercurrent here which is contrary to the secular yet moral aspects of liberalism. The contention seems to be that a moral outlook requires a religious (Christian) aspect but I don't accept that for a moment. Morality and a moral outlook isn't derived from a creed but from an understanding of values. This no doubt appeals to the ingrained paternalism that is at the heart of the Conservative message - the "we know best" high-handedness that is a form of bossiness and becomes an integral part of the social policy.

I'm left with the view that if Cameron is intent on following the Blond thesis it's a very good reason NOT to vote Conservative at the next General Election. As with most conservative thinkers, Blond is long on diagnosing the problem and short on offering practical solutions. The message he and Cameron are proposing is a different form of Blairite social democracy with a strong religiously moral overtone.

It is predicated on a romanticised view of how society functions, has significant overtones of fascism and will do nothing either to help the poor or to revitalise local democracy.

Blond is wrong and Cameron is also wrong.

No comments: