Giles Fraser: Behind the allure of the Red Tory

25 March 2009

Philip Blond is the new big thing in the Conservative Party ideas laboratory — although he would deny that there is anything new about Red Toryism. For Dr Blond, the tradition of Tories’ being socially conservative (the Tory bit) and yet critical of free-market economics (the Red bit) harks back to an older age of one-nation Tories — people such as Disraeli and Ruskin.

No wonder David Cameron was so keen to launch Dr Blond’s Pro­gressive Conservatism Project at the Demos think tank back in January. What the whole Red Tory enterprise offers the new-look Tories is a story about post-Thatcher Conservatism that is not in hock to the loads-of-money philosophy of the bankers or stockbrokers.

At the heart of Dr Blond’s political philosophy is an attack on liberalism, which, he argues, eats away at the common good. In pro­mot­ing freedom and the rights of the individual as a means of warding off tyranny, liberal freedom ushered in an era of relativism that undermined any sense of values held in common. Liberalism won its battles at the expense of the old-fashioned type of communal solidarity that people remember when they speak fondly of the war years. Liberalism replaced com­munal values with empty atom­ised individualism, Dr Blond insists.

Behind this Red Toryism is the unmistakable hand of the theological movement Radical Orthodoxy, associated with people such as John Milbank and Rowan Williams. Dr Blond was a founder member, a former theology lecturer and com­mitted Anglican. Like other members of Radical Orthodoxy, he was influenced by its compelling com­bination of modern communitarian­ism and much older Catholic social theology.

This is important stuff, and needs to be taken seriously. But I shall not be signing up just yet. While I recognise many of the failings of the liberal project — the current finan­cial mess being among them — the enemies of political liberalism have yet to reassure me that they have an alternative account of human free­dom which takes the threat of tyranny seriously. I do not need a political philosophy that is all about personal licence, but I do want one that has a proper vigilance against (to put it bluntly) fascism, both the secular and the ecclesiastical.

Dr Blond and I had lunch in Borough Market last week. As he tried to persuade me of the evils of liberalism, I could see out of the window the energy and diversity created by market trade. Free mar­kets remain one of the most success­ful ways of hedging against tyranny. Until these new communitarians take the fear of tyranny much more seriously, I shall continue to take my chances with the traders, the Protest­ants, and the liberals.

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