Tories red in tooth and claw?

Posted on February 9, 2009

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Over on the prospect magazine blog you can read a post on an essay from their latest edition titled “The Red Tory Moment” by Phillip Blond.  This is an intentionally provocative article, putting forward the thesis that David Cameron can (and may be likely to) steer the Conservative party in the UK towards a more communitarian policy agenda, by rediscovering the lost ‘one nation’ heritage of the only viable opposition to the Labour government.

Prospect january cover

As well as suggesting a general change in direction, Bond suggests a number of possible policy initiatives:

  • Localising the banking system by operating a government backed credit system via the post-office, eventually devolving this function to the super-local level;
  • Breaking up ‘big business monopolies’;
  • Setting up local investment trusts to promote community asset ownership and generate a local venture capital network;
  • Devolving local government procurement to local bodies

These are interesting proposals, much more in tune with the new localism agenda of the Liberal Democrats than the new-Tories who have not come close to promoting anything this radical since 1979.  In fact, many of these ideas bear a remarkable similarity to Thatcherite ideas of increasing competition, breaking up big government and promoting the responsibilities of the self-interested community over ‘society’.  These were ideas, like neo-conservatism in the US, that attempted to provide an anchor for the hyper-capitalism that has developed since the 1970s and is only now shuddering to a halt.

The economic incentives to the most highly developed countries of globalised markets were so huge, that political parties of all hues have been desperate to find a social compact that can act as a counterpoint to the destructive social tendencies of the neoliberal economic model.  From the late 1990s we saw the Republican party in the US bring the religious right into their partnership with big business to provide a moral anchor for their policies, whilst in the UK  the curiously value-free ‘third-way’ was promoted by the no-less business friendly New Labour.  Central to the Thatcherite agenda was a vision of equality of ambition, the belief that economic success should be open to everybody and that, so long as we consented to the government stepping back from the responsibilities of universal welfare and equality, we would all be allowed to compete  against each other for huge personal rewards.  Noting that this is a failed project which has not led to the ‘property-owning democracy’ that was hoped for and has instead redistributed wealth upwards, the article goes on to set out an agenda for remedying a situation that almost all commentators agree has led to a drop in social mobility and an increase in social problems, especially in the most disadvantaged communities.

Bond suggests that the conservatives now offer a ‘radical communitarian civic conservatism’  that rejects ‘social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of education, opportunity and choice’, claiming that the personal insecurities that a meritocracy breeds in the unsuccessful are at the root of our social ills.  Instead, Bond says that we should grace ‘every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth’.   This is another attempt to provide a moral framework for the amoral project of neoliberalism, but it differs from previous visions  by promising nothing to those for whom it claims to have the greatest concern.  As a radical conservatism this argument goes even further than Thatcher; by removing the aspirational aspects of Thatcher’s vision;  it promises a future where everyone knows their place, and is happy to stay there.

Later in the article we read of Bond’s desire to see the power of trade unions reduced, the market made ‘truly free’ and recapitalising the poor through extending asset ownership.  These are the least radical of his proposals, and demonstrate a continuity in his ideas, not with Disraeli as he would like, but with the gurus of neoliberal politics of the last thirty years.   Under the cover of a ‘compassionate conservatism’ we can expect to find Bond’s arguments recycled in the next Conservative party manifesto, hopefully we won’t fall for the same trick twice just because a recession and an election have come along at the same time, just like in 1979

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