Ed West meets Phillip Blond, the admirer of Chesterton who has been described as the Prime Minister’s ‘philosopher king’
A craftsman is outside Phillip Blond’s central London flat, when I arrive there on an autumn morning, meticulously labouring on the wooden panelling on his next door neighbour’s house. We, Blond and I, marvel at the nearly restored building, warmed by its beauty and the uplifting sight of a skilled artisan in a satisfying job bringing beauty to the world. It’s too good an analogy to miss, for this sums up the worldview of this unlikely phenomenon: a British conservative intellectual.
Blond’s rise to prominence has been rapid. At the beginning of last year he was a philosophy and theology lecturer at St Martin’s College in Lancaster, Ambleside and Carlisle (now the University of Cumbria), but his occasional newspaper pieces began to be picked up by the circle surrounding David Cameron. This slow and quietly growing respect then blew into national fame when one article, “The rise of the Red Tory”, appeared in Prospect magazine. He was soon labelled Cameron’s “philosopher king”, his face regularly appearing in newspapers, and the 43-year-old was whisked off to London where he was demanded at every conference, seminar and dinner party.
His manifesto, Red Tory, was published in April, becoming mandatory reading for anyone interested in Britain’s social and economic problems. The book’s subtitle is “How Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it”, and even those who would not agree with the solution certainly agree with the diagnosis. But while Left blames Right and Right blames Left, it is Blond’s belief that the current political philosophies that claim those mantels are essentially the same.
Thatcher’s economic liberalism, he says, was an extension of the Left’s social liberalism. Together they have led to atomisation, inequalities of wealth and increased authoritarianism.
Blond was a Left-wing teenager in the 1980s, appalled by the Conservatives, who he believed cared only for money and power, while he was attracted to socialism’s concern with social justice. But it eventually dawned on him that all his Left-wing friends believed in the same thing as the Thatcherites: “unlimited choice and unrestricted personal freedom”.
“The great blindness on the Left, which they never realise, is that they were libertarians first, and they created the conditions for Mrs Thatcher,” he tells me.
“What the Left can’t see and can’t grasp is their cultural and social libertarianism is the precondition for economic libertarianism. You’re always attacked for pointing this out.”
Blond’s ideas are influenced by Chesterton, Belloc and Schumacher, whose distributism has always maintained a peripheral popularity without making any political progress. But our era, with a public weary of capitalism but still disdainful of socialism, offers a unique opportunity.
“It’s the time for this type of thinking,” Blond says. “The Right is exclusively pro-market and the Left is proscribing everything but the state. They are now no longer sustainable positions.”
Here’s a bald statistic from the book: in 1976 the bottom 50 per cent of the population owned 12 per cent of non-propertied wealth; by 2003 it was one per cent. Meanwhile the median wage of the average British worker has not increased in 40 years, although productivity has increased massively, meaning that people are required to buy more things with the same income. The system has therefore sought growth by lending wage-earners ever more money to keep the economy going, plunging large sections of society hopelessly into debt.
Naturally Blond’s arguments have made him unpopular with some free marketers, but he says he is hoping to save capitalism, not end it. “The end of capitalism stuff is infantile nonsense,” he insists. “I believe in capitalism, the
free market, non-state, mass ownership – all of these things. But this type of free market has effectively stripped the poor of capital, converted them into a new serfdom and gradually increased the number of that class by debt and low wages.”
All of this could be fairly easily digested at a Labour or Liberal Democrat meeting, yet where Blond differs from most other critics of capitalism is in trying to reunite economics with ethics and in seeing social and economic problems as symbiotic. Political economy, from which economics developed, was once a branch of ethics, and Adam Smith was a professor of moral theology. It was only the 19th-century utilitarians, who wished to turn economics into a hard science, divorcing it from ethics. Part of Blond’s mission is to restore economics to its roots, for it is impossible to separate economic decline and social breakdown.
“The real crisis in Britain is the destruction of human relationships, the foundation of society,” he says. “And that’s what’s right with the Broken Britain thesis. It’s a loss of human society. The poorer you are, the lonelier you are, the more costs you incur for the state, because human sociability is linked with wealth, health and all sorts of indicators from mental illness to obesity.
“The crisis in human relationships is shown in the way men treat women and women treat men, and how we treat our children. Now we’re getting to the situation where nearly half of all British children will be born outside of marriage, and the longevity of the relationships they’re born into is a third less than if they were married. We are reproducing an atomised society. That is a genuine social disaster.”
It’s views like this, and his opposition to abortion, that so shock the liberal middle class, and provoke such fury. The anger directed at Blond by Guardian readers, for example, whenever he writes for that paper can be absurd.
He’s seen it and smiles ruefully. “The level of personal vitriol is almost like a Freudian cultural reaction to telling the truth. It’s so weird that you have to think you’re naming a deep nature they don’t recognise.”
This kind of hostility was also recently displayed in the protests against the Pope, which Blond found bizarre.
“They captured the whole media agenda even if they represent a handful of human beings, a literal handful,” he says. “The Pope clearly won, as he was more rational, reasonable, nuanced and liberal, while his liberal critics were highly illiberal.”
He laughs when I mention that Geoffrey Robertson QC, who wishes to prosecute the Pope, said the Pontiff was opposed to the “British values” the protestors represented. Partly he attributes the “British values” fallacy to the death of history.
“We’ve killed history in our country. These people, often university educated, have literally a sophomoric understanding of British history. In fact, it’s not even that good. They have no grasp of their own recent history or their own future.”
I suggest that fewer than five in 100 would know about the role of Nonconformists in rescuing British society in the 19th century.
He corrects me. “Less than one in 100 would know about the social and cultural revival of Britain. And the situation in Hogarth’s Britain is very much as it is now.”
What’s so interesting, he says, is that so many of the social reformers were Tories, men such as William Wilberforce, Richard Oastler and Michael Sadler, who fought against white slavery in Yorkshire while the factory-owning Manchester liberals wanted the women and children to work far harder. Then there is Shaftesbury.
“Many Conservatives have no idea of what Conservative history is,” Blond says. “They went through a year zero, a kind of Cambodian erasure after Thatcher.”
He insists that he respects the Iron Lady, especially her decision to sell council houses (“a brilliant example of distributism in action”). But he adds: “The ideological intensity often seems to burn more intensely after the original figure has faded, and 20 years on you have zealots who misread Thatcherism.”
Blond himself grew up in a city that was ravaged by de-industrialisation and the sexual revolution, and one that is not exactly a hotbed of Toryism today: Liverpool.
He had a standard “liberal secular upbringing” in an Anglican family of predominantly Irish Catholic family origin (with a bit of English and Jewish thrown in). His parents separated when he was 16, and he spent his adolescence both in inner-city Liverpool and middle-class Wirral. His father, the gallery owner Max Blond, went on to marry the mother of James Bond actor Daniel Craig, making them grown-up stepbrothers (Blond calls him “a great bloke” and loyally says he’s “the best Bond since Sean Connery”).
Blond never considered himself an atheist, but “in my 20s I became rationally convinced by Christianity. It was like discovering what you always were. The great text for me was St John’s Gospel. The great question was: ‘Clearly there are universals. What are objective values to do with us?’ Then I understood that Christianity is essentially a theology of relationships, a theology of mediation. ‘God is love’ means even the deity itself is relational.”
Blond taught theology at Exeter after finishing his studies at Peterhouse, but his path was roundabout. “I started with politics, and then did philosophy because I thought none of the ideas could be understood outside philosophy and then I changed to theology because I thought none of the ideas could be understood outside theology.”
He describes himself as being “Anglican with huge appreciation of Catholicism”, and says: “For me, I feel very loyal to Anglicanism because it’s England and England is a very holy place. I love the parish system, the churches, but it’s been destroyed by liberalism.”
The same goes for English liberalism. According to Blond, the modern Left is a monstrosity that the pre-1960s Labour party of Christian social conservatives would barely recognise as its own offspring. “That pre-Marxist anti-statist Left-wing tradition would have despised what has happened to the Left and their contemporaries,” he says.
One of Red Toryism’s great attractions is that, far from being oppressive and stuffy, it is anti-authoritarian, or, in Blond’s words, “a radical, non-liberal Tory position more liberating than liberalism”. It’s a Blondite paradox, one could say.
“I see all my teaching as liberating and therefore in line in the liberal tradition. We’ve had a reductive and perverted form of liberalism, a pure individualism that has aborted all other liberal traditions and so has created the conditions for mass collectivisation.”
For all of perverted liberalism’s social chaos and inequality creates the need for an ever stronger state, so that “there’s a dialectical view between extreme individualism and extreme collectivism”.
And yet the state’s remedies do not work, because one cannot help the poor without morality, especially when most behaviour is peer-group driven.
Blond is one of the philosophical inspirations behind David Cameron’s theme of the “big society”, the reinvigoration of civic society which the new leader has made the central plank of his premiership (although he has yet to sell it to the British public).
As the leading philosophical influence on the governing party, Blond’s brand of Chestertonianism is on a high. Earlier this year Blond established his own think-tank, ResPublica, which has risen towards the top of that highly competitive field in a startlingly short time, raising £1.5m in its first two weeks. It is currently moving across town to Westminster and recruiting 20 extra staff.
Blond is pleased with how life is working out, but mostly “grateful” having acquired recognition in his mid-40s after “10 years a minor academic in a provincial university”.
As I leave, the craftsman is putting the final touches to the front gate next door. A run-down Georgian terrace, has been majestically restored to its former glory. If a group of men can do that to a house, can we all do the same to British society?
Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It is available from Faber and Faber, priced £12.99