Thursday, 21 August 2008

Red Tory

A deeper shade of blueTories are now drawing on a radical conservative past that foretold flaws in Thatcher's market dogmaAll comments () Phillip Blond The Guardian, Thursday August 21 2008 Article historyWhen economic paradigms shift, ideology follows. Just as the Keynesian model broke down in the 1970s and ushered in the rise of Thatcherism, so the present crisis of neoliberal economics is precipitating a philosophical change in the Conservative party. The Tories are now speaking of sharing the benefits of growth and wealth, and the need for markets to generate fair outcomes. Moreover, they are distancing themselves from the current socioeconomic settlement because they recognise that it produces inequality and reinforces class barriers. They know that the community culture they want to resurrect was not only destroyed by the socialist state, but by the capitalist market. Say it softly, but the Tories could be poised to finally break with Thatcherism and its winner-takes-all monopoly capitalism.

The small governing elite of the party feels that this is the right way to go, but they lack a final intellectual synthesis and they also fear antagonising Thatcherites, who still constitute a sizeable slice of the party and a majority of the branch activists. But the unprecedented crisis of the world economy precipitated by the debt-leveraged collapse of free-market extremism has given the Tories a real opportunity to develop. They should worry less and carry the logic of their own civic philosophy through to its conclusion, for it could produce a genuinely critical account of the crisis and an alternative to the left/right neoliberal fundamentalism of the last 30 years.

For instance, the crisis of contemporary capitalism results from the congruence and culmination of three dominant trends: centralisation, monopolisation and speculation. Despite rightwing ideological claims, unregulated capital does not diffuse equitably among all market participants. The centralisation of money and power is the foundation of monopoly, and the precondition for unrestrained speculation. Thus the Conservative critique of centralisation means an end of cartel domination and a limit to inappropriate speculation.

Accordingly, the much-derided new civic philosophy of conservatism is actually key to reversing all the malign consequences of the Thatcher-Blair years. A genuinely local economy requires not just freedom from the target-driven, ethos-destroying logic of the state, but also liberation from the corporate business model. Corporate norms have obliterated owner-occupiers of small businesses and have created clone towns where every high street is the same, or ghost towns where the economies of scale kill off local enterprises. A revived localism inspires a diverse ecology of agriculture, industry and innovation, and a renewed sense of regional identity, reversing an economic monoculture predicated on finance and the City.

There are signs, therefore, that this localism is becoming the fulcrum around which conservatism could change. One example is Cameron's frustration at Policy Exchange's recent report that, in a disturbing echo of the rightwing "mobility of labour" argument, called for the abandonment of northern cities for the job-rich south. Likewise, the Conservative campaign against post office closures and the "disappearing Britain" campaign to save local shops all suggest a new distaste for the homogenising consequences of neoliberalism. So much so that the Conservative research department is trying to develop new central metrics of social value for a future government that would bypass mere short-term economic calculation. The agenda can go further: Boris Johnson's endorsement of a living wage for Londoners, rather than a minimum one, should be universal. Cameron's espousal of a work-life balance and the support of personal, rather than state, childcare is an echo of an electorally popular value system.

However, the final articulation of a post-Thatcherite economics would require elements from the radical conservative past - where figures such as William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin argued for a working class self-sufficiency, or English Catholic writers such as GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc argued that only widely distributed ownership could resist the dispossession and destruction of rabid capitalism. George Osborne's recognition in these pages yesterday that the flawed nature of unfettered markets suggests that the Tories have made the distinction between the current monopoly settlement and genuinely free markets. With a new view of competition that ensures markets support a genuine plurality by upholding social consensus and an extension of assets and ownership for all, modern conservatism could finally turn its back on Margaret Thatcher.

· Phillip Blond is a senior lecturer in theology and philosophy at the University of Cumbria. He is currently writing Red Tory, a book on radical Conservatism

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