Phillip Blond, head of right-communitarian British think tank ResPublica, has parted from onetime ally David Cameron. In a strong editorial in the Guardian, he lays out his reasons:
The government is now focused on a purely negative agenda of deficit reduction, and unable to offer a positive vision of the future. Almost overnight the idea of a governing principle and a vision of a better Britain was overthrown by economic austerity and a smug and indifferent Treasury. Yes, the deficit bequeathed by Labour is a real economic emergency, and yes it cannot be ignored, and yes a simplistic continuance of the Keynesian status quo would simply restore a defunct and broken economic model. But the means employed to address it are defunct and outdated. Supply side reform is not a sufficient condition for growth: an economic approach that worked, for some, 40 years ago now appears not to work for any. Deficit reduction is not even working on its own terms. . .
Cameron’s premiership has been losing steam for some time now, and his obsession with “modernizing” the Conservative party has begun to foment real resentment in his own ranks, especially among the traditionalists who comprise a good bit of the party’s rank-and-file. So this may be a move made with some practical foresight.
But I also wonder what, if anything, this says about the ability of this kind of deep traditionalism to impact politics at the national level (and vice versa). “Red Toryism” and the “Big Society,” broke new (or, more accurately, long-untilled) ground when they first emerged. They offered a genuinely interesting way of articulating conservative principles that looked set to finally push the conversation past the now-several decades old tropes of regulation v. the invisible hand and individualism v. collectivism. More than that, the reclamation of communal language and localist emphases allowed a party not often identified with compassion the public mind to speak authentically and convincingly about its concern for the poor without sounding like it had simply flip-flopped or paid for an image-improvement campaign. While some dismissed the rise of the Red Tories as little more than convenient rhetorical facade to cover for planned austerity, or as wholly insincere, in truth they represented an authentic attempt to rethink what had become regnant political orthodoxy along the lines of older (and still ostensibly functioning) principles–a kind of radical traditionalism, if such a term can make sense.
Readers unfamiliar with Blond’s project may be wondering precisely what it tried to accomplish. Perhaps the nearest analogy in American politics is/was “compassionate conservatism,” though even that was emphatically rather different. The core idea in the latter was essentially that the federal government could utilize its abundant resources to provide both more direct support for the poor and aid the underprivileged in attaining ownership of real assets, which would theoretically capitalize them in not only material but civic and social terms (this seemed more plausible in the year 2000, when presidential debates revolved around the question, “what do we do about the federal surplus?” and the term “subprime mortgage” had not entered the lexicon). The localist component was lacking, and the concept’s end goal was less about developing a societal membrane than it was about making existing welfare programs more personal and more effective (not unworthy goals in and of themselves).
But Blond wasn’t aiming to tinker. By his reckoning, “people desperately want a new economic and social settlement. But nothing is on offer from the right, so the left has moved into the vacuum.” He’s correct that an answer at a level deeper than policy tweaking has not yet emerged from our ongoing economic woes. The spiritual content of our collective response has not gone far beyond denunciations of amorphous “greed” and gut-reaction austerity programs (though often needed). There is still a sense that, as soon as the present crisis passes, the postwar Western lifestyle can and should pick up right where it left off. Red Toryism represents one such attempt to challenge both that assumption and its Janus-like counterpart to which we are sometimes prone: that there’s little but doom and decline ahead.
So the falling-out between Blond and Cameron indicates, I suspect, more about entrenched political interests and intra-party politics than it does any “failure” of the project, which has barely been tried. That probably won’t stop some politicos from seizing on the split as proof of Red Toryism’s utter unworkability and attempting to lock out voices like his in the future. But perhaps the real lesson here for those interested in recovering or developing an alternative conservative tradition is this: don’t expect to neatly transpose what is going to be a long, quiet labor onto a national political stage with instant results, fashioning a platform and passing bills like a well-established party or interest group; at least not yet, or so quickly. It can be perilous to stand on the roof when the foundation is being repaired.