Is Red Toryism the new true-blue?

It is just possible that Philip Blond and the Red Toryism of his ResPublica are the very fig-leaf a true-blue Conservative Party needs. It may be that David Cameron, beyond his bland rebranding of the Tories, is thinking along these lines….

David Cameron wants to have a heart and a soul, preferably lined up with an intellect, and seems to have sub-contracted the enterprise to Steve Hilton and other “Social Responsibility” types. Ergo: an interest in Philip Blond’s Red Toryism and ResPublica.

The fans of Red Toryism like a mush and are full of anti-capitalist, post-materialist, well-being, communitarian tripe. But they are on to something.

The Red Tory tropes are not all that new. Disdaining capitalism’s vulgarities is a very old dry Tory theme (in the US as well is in the UK, as shown in Sam Tenenhaus’s The Death of Conservatism and my own Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics). Longing for individuals (and communities and volunteers) to take up the burden of responsibility is equally Old Tory.

Most communitarianism is the triumph of hope over experience. The individuals and communities most needing help are the least able to raise the money or motivation to fix themselves, especially after decades of crippling state dependency. Additionally, nowhere is there much local appetite for local democracy. It’s a bore and not especially efficient and would require local taxation which is, I would have thought, a no-no.

The answer? I think the state should declare the long term ambition of beating a strategic retreat from doing hands-on social justice work. Instead it should aim to mandate and control the private sector (firms, trusts, charities, individuals) and what I call the Archipelago State (quangoes, especially) to do.

We should aim to abolish the Welfare State, by privatising as much of its infrastructure and funding as possible. The state should own very little kit (schools, hospitals etc) and aim to fund equity by subsidising poor customers for their necessarily expensive use of services. This is, obviously, a dagger at the heart of universal provision and its false promise of social cohesion and well-being. So it would make an excellent political and policy batteground.

The right thinks (and I think the Tories should accept) that the state’s job is put its money, mouth and muscle (taxes, argument and laws) to work with the grain of capitalism and volunteerism. The result will be a fuzzy sector: low-profit and no-profit businesses, and professional volunteers. The Archipelago State will likewise be an oddity (scattered and unelected, for a start).

The point is that the result is the best resolution of an inherently messy business and would be authentically conservative. The Third Way (New Labour’s reconciliation of  Thatcherism and Macmillanism) says the market is OK but leaves a lot for a willing state to do. That feeble rhetoric leaves far too much space for a bossy, crippling state.

The New Tories could be showing that they know how to make a relucant state do less but better. That is the real point of saying that there’s more to society than the state.

Interestingly, Red Toryism may allow quite a lot of space to develop this latter theme whilst not frightening the horses. Even the fuzziness of their rhetoric has merit. This work will be done across generations, not just one or two parliaments. It will happen when people grow into accepting the sense of the underlying propositions, and that will happen almost osmotically.

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Publication date

27 November 2009