Monday 9 February 2009

The meaning of Red Toryism

The Red Tory debate, the subject of a forthcoming book by the Conservative theorist Phillip Blond, featured in a fascinating column by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian today.

I’m especially interested because I have been, in a small way, trying to suggest that a very similar mixture of small enterprise, localism, voluntaryism and anti-trust legislation against big business might be the way forward for political Liberalism. Yet here we are discussing it as the new direction for Cameron, backed by a whole range of Conservative luminaries.

I’m not saying I agree with everything Blond says, and there are some worrying areas – the strictures against immigration and free trade are ambiguous. It depends very much what he means by both, and certainly in his writings that I've seen, both get favourable and unfavourable slants.

Madeleine Bunting talks about the risks of this kind of romantic brand of Toryism, anti-Thatcher, anti-corporate (public and private), and it is certainly true that there are risks. Previous incarnations of this kind of romantic politics (Populism in the 1890s, Distributism in the 1920s, Social Credit in the 1930s) all flirted – once they had worn themselves out – with ideas we would consider dangerous.

Thinking about it a little more today, and translating it into American terms, I think the risks are clearer. Because actually this agenda is a neglected corner of Jeffersonian Liberalism. When it was used by the Left it ended up with the populist gangsterism of Huey Long. When it was used by the Right it ended up with the mildly malevolent communitarianism of Pat Buchanan. These are interesting byways, but not very attractive ones.

Only when it stays where it belongs, as political Liberalism – and I accept some of Phillip Blond’s analysis of the contradictions of liberalism – is it rendered safe. Because it is put in the context, as Jefferson intended, of the Declaration of Independence, where we hold some basic humanitarian truths to be self-evident.

So that’s my thesis. Take a closer look at Red Toryism, and be aware that the contradictions of Conservatism are also lurking, and take back those vital, neglected aspects of what are actually part of the Liberal heritage. An urgent part too: it is an antidote to the deadly technocracy of Fabianism which has been a kiss of death for so much of British policy, right and left, and which also lives on in the Liberal Democrats, seeking whom it will devour.

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