‘Red Toryism’ Holds Little But Giggles For Local Liberals

If the Liberal Party is looking for philosophical guidance which is both coherent and electorally appealing, they won’t find it in the “Red Toryism” of Phillip Blond.
Blond is the founder of the UK think tank ResPublica and has been visiting Australia. He spoke to a Menzies Research Institute conference (the Liberal party’s in-house think tank) last Friday.
The conference is no obscure academic exercise – Blond had the ear of Tony Abbott, Andrew Robb, and Julie Bishop while he spoke.
A taste of Blond’s Red Tory thought was published on The Drum on last week. It’s a sort of Third Way for conservatives. Blond spends a lot of time talking about “small” – big business versus small business, big, centralised government versus small, decentralised, community-focused government. There’s a strong emphasis on social capital – the benefits of community relationships – and voluntary associations. Blond calls for a new “social capitalism”.
There’s much to admire about Blond’s ideas.
The “Big Society” – David Cameron’s grand program for the revitalization of broken Britain – was inspired by Blond’s ideas. Like Red Toryism, the Big Society was a recognition the British government had crowded out civil society organisations and undermined social capital. And that the country’s apparent social breakdown was as much caused by parliament as it was by consumer capitalism.
The regulatory barriers to, say, holding a street party or school fete in Britain are pernicious. Escalating health and safety requirements and council approvals have become such a burden that these essential community events are now rare.
The focus of Red Toryism and the Big Society on decentralisation and localism is also admirable.
But it’s one thing to define terms and state principles – what soars in a campaign addresses can flounder when translated to concrete public policy. Headland speeches are popular with the commentariat but have a habit of obscuring rather than illuminating. When asked how well they understand Cameron’s Big Society, two thirds of the British public say “not well”.
And Blond’s Red Tory philosophy is, unfortunately, a built on a pile of straw men.
Take, for instance, his belief that neo-liberalism, far from rejecting government regulation, necessitates it. In The Drum he argued that “if the economic actor is conceived as purely self-interested, as obeying no external codes, as living only by the internal dictate of his/her will and volition, then this actor needs regulation and tight external control.”
Of course, no actually-existing model of regulation conceives of individuals as “purely self-interested” who have “no external codes”. This is pure caricature.
Rather, the dominant model of regulation which has evolved in the 20th century seeks to manage the risk that individual actions will create undesired consequences. Free choice is not guaranteed to cause problems. But, just in case those problems arise, there’s regulation ready.
Governments don’t impose stringent food handling regulations because the “economic actor is conceived as purely self-interested”. They impose those regulations because politicians have determined individuals must be protected against their own lack of knowledge or ineptitude, and how those failures will impact others.
By attributing regulatory ideology to the “Chicago school” and neo-liberalism, Blond is blaming Britain’s over-regulation on a small government philosophy which opposes over-regulation. It’s a clever sleight of hand.
And it allows him to claim he wants a free market capitalism “based on trust”. This “civic economy” would apparently require almost no government, bureaucratic, or regulatory support. While his is an appealing vision – low in regulation and high in social capital – it’s based on an idiosyncratic view of why over-regulation has occurred in the first place.
Blond also has a cartoonish interpretation of market economics and other political ideologies. Like his belief that “In order to reclaim a civilised society, market and state should not be regarded as the ultimate goal or expression of humanity”. No-one holds those views. No-one.
In the end, Blond’s Red Toryism is less a revolution in political philosophy than the sort of vapid “thought-leadership” CEOs love.
And no surprise the public is struggling to grasp the good bits of the Big Society when its biggest philosophical backer is so confused.
Australian conservative politics has long taken cues from the United Kingdom. Many Liberal Party thinkers admire the progressive Tory vanguard.
It was a visit to Britain in 2009 which inspired Malcolm Turnbull to double down on the emissions trading scheme – Cameron’s apparently successful remaking of the Tories into environmentalists convinced the former opposition leader that was a replicable strategy in Australia.
Now some Liberal intellectuals are looking seriously at Blond’s Red Toryism.
A decade ago, many in the Labor Party were entranced by the Third Way of Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens. But as the journalist Andrew Rawnsley has said, “The Third Way was debated at earnest summits abroad and giggled to death at home.”
The Liberal Party should think hard before it adopts a political philosophy destined to travel the same path.