The Crisis of the Cameron Conservative Project:
The Limits of Progressive Conservatism and ‘Red Toryism’
The Scotsman, July 10th 2009
David Cameron has promised a new kind of Conservative politics: compassionate, ‘voting blue, going green’, concerned about poverty and the ‘broken society’.
Pivotal to this has been a ferment of ideas in Conservative circles and in particular debates about ‘Progressive Conservatism’ and ‘Red Toryism’. The two strands were brought together, the former a high profile project at Demos, the UK think tank, and the latter, an intellectual excursion by Phillip Blond, theologian and thinker, who headed the former, and was identified with the latter. Last week the two separated as Blond parted company with Demos.
This has significant wider consequences, weakening the ground for those pushing for a radical Tory agenda and gives more clout to those calling on Cameron to not be too explicit about any of his plans and policies pre-election. It also exposes the chasm between the two variants of Toryism.
Progressive Conservatism has been one of the defining credos of Cameron Toryism. At the launch of the project of the same name at Demos earlier this year, Cameron laid out four progressive principles at its heart. These were a fairer society, one where opportunity is more equal, a greener society, and a safer nation. Cameron explicitly said that these progressive values were ones many people could unite around, showing that ‘in politics most of us are actually fighting for the same things’.
Where he did identify grounds for difference was in the means to advance these – which for Conservatives included decentralising government, using government to strengthen civil society, founding economic and environmental progress on economic growth, and government living within its means.
This argument was used to emphasis that a decade of Labour Government had failed to deliver progressive means, and that a Conservative approach would more successfully advance a kinder, gentler nation at ease with itself. This was a bold agenda and one which, given the state of Labour, has won adherents and interest across the political spectrum.
Red Toryism is not, as some have portrayed it, a new term. Instead, it originates from debates within Canadian Conservatism, where it represents the left-wing strand in thinking opposed to the more orthodox ‘blue Toryism’.
In the UK, Phillip Blond has become the most prominent supporter writing an influential essay in ‘Prospect’ earlier this year, and researching his book on the subject which will be out early next year.
Red Toryism argues that both the unlimited state and unlimited market destroy civil society and things the Conservatives hold dear: the family, intermediate institutions, a sense of community. To Blond, both the welfare state and monopoly capitalism disempower working class people.
This points to a central feature in the ‘Red’ discourse: its attempted appropriation of the language of the ethical left from Tawney and Orwell, but how in fact it draws from much wider left thinking. Thus, Blond talks of the perils of post-democratic society and the market state, which operate in the interests of corporate and political elites, and where politics has become the narrow pursuit of defending those interests.
There is common ground between Progressive Conservatism and Red Toryism. They are both trying to develop a new terrain for a renewed politics of civil society which avoids the pitfalls of market and state fundamentalism. Both are trying to navigate Conservatism out of the long shadow of Mrs. Thatcher. And both create a caricature of much of the left – as statist and welfarist – to dismiss it; this despite Red Toryism borrowing widely from left rhetoric.
The differences are much more deep and profound. Progressive Conservatism may talk the language of greater individual responsibility and ‘localism’, but it is a new centralism cloaked in friendly language. Red Toryism invokes the ideals of self-government, acknowledging that the power of the state and corporates leaves people feeling powerless.
Progressive Conservatism is silent on the central issue of Toryism: its relationship to the legacy of Thatcherism. It has yet to come to terms with what Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society calls ‘the rupture’ which Thatcherism caused in 1970s Conservatism and UK politics onward – an ambiguity and unease it shares with the Tories pre-Cameron and New Labour.
Red Toryism has no hesitancies on this ground. It sees Thatcherism as part of the problem, and an ideology like state socialism which encouraged the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands diminishing intermediate institutions such as local government and voluntary associations.
It is obvious from this that Red Toryism is incompatible with the main body of thinking in contemporary Conservatism. This points to the Cameron Conservatives portraying themselves as radical, while staying close to the Thatcher/Blair consensus which has brought the country to the brink of ruin. This means that ‘blue Toryism’ will prevail in debates within the party and once the Conservatives are in office.
Intellectually, this signals the shape of the future faultlines of British politics. These are less defined by left versus right and more by authoritarianism versus radical decentralisers. The events of the last week have just defined the character of each side a little more clearly. On the authoritarian side stand Blair, Brown and Cameron, and most of their parties. On the other, decentralist side, can be found Red Toryism, John Cruddas and Labour reformers in Compass, and the Lib Dems.
The new establishment which has arisen in the last thirty years is fixated on a narrow and very hollow idea of ‘freedom’ which is centred on our power to consume, shop, spend money and see ourselves as atomised, individualised ‘selves’. It still has control of the two main parties, most of the media and corporate opinion, while the radicals who see the sorry state this has led the UK to, have much less power, access and status, but a coherent case and a growing body of opinion prepared to listen to them.