Secretary General of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala offers a thoughtful response to the Progressive Conservatism Project.

Few would take seriously the rather thin pamphlet ‘Who’s progressive now?’ on that theme published a year ago by Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, which even its authors would admit was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek smash and grab raid on the centre-left lexicon. But a more concerted attempt to produce some intellectual ballast for this political repositioning was launched yesterday by Demos, an event blessed by the presence of leader David Cameron and party big brain Oliver Letwin alongside several luminaries of the left.

Cameron barely said anything new at all, articulating the progressive ends (fairness, equal opportunity, sustainability, public safety) towards which he hopes to find some conservative means (work in progress, to say the least). But he stayed on for a much more interesting speech by Phillip Blond (not yet online), who is heading the Demos progressive conservatism project, before the leader and the thinker took questions together.

Blond has a new book out ‘Red Tory’, previewed in a Prospect cover story, to be published next week, illustrated by Maggie as Che. Can Demos remake the Conservative Party, or at least compete for “thought leadership” within it? It is an audacious bid, and the odds begin stacked heavily against it. What already seemed very clear is that a Red Tory revolution would certainly need much blue blood to be spilt.

Still, the project itself and the leadership’s engagement with it throw up some intriguing questions.

Firstly, I think Blond could well be described as the first serious “outrider” to attempt to seek to provide intellectual space upstream of the Tory leader.

Secondly, that this is taking place at Demos (a think-tank, under Richard Reeves, in transition from the liberal-left to the liberal centre, and perhaps centre-right) also reflects just how little the centre of gravity of the major right-wing Tory think-tanks has shifted since 2005. The intellectual energy on the post-Thatcherite right remains very much animated by the core ‘whoever governs least, governs best’ principle. This is also true of the active Tory blogosphere. Whether ConservativeHome simply reflects how the next generation of emerging Tories (including many of its current and would-be parliamentary candidates) is to the right of its leadership and how far it may help to further reinforce that is difficult to accurately judge. But all of this helps to explain why Cameronism, having begun as an electoral project heavily in thrall to the Philip Gould ‘authorised version of the New Labour “narrative”, has yet to deepen significantly beyond that, and why almost all of the pressure on the leadership has come from its right, which was won some significant shifts whenever a highly politically salient argument has taken place, from grammar schools to taxation and spending plans.

It is fair to note that Labour has struggled to decide between contradictory critiques of Cameron, but this also partly reflects the real ambiguities in the direction of travel. Is he all spin and no substance, so standing for nothing beyond what will get him elected? Or do the smile and warm words conceal a Thatcherite agenda (as Gordon Brown believes has been confirmed by the financial crisis, and which some on the right like Fraser Nelson of The Spectator hope and believe is the case)? Is Cameron a small c conservative, seeking to accommodate the new status quo post-New Labour (an analysis favoured by James Purnell and David Miliband)? It is the fourth possibility, that the civic conservative project could and should amount to something more contentful than a ratification of the new status quo, that the Demos project seeks to flesh out.

So I am for taking the Demos project and the aspiration to a progressive conservatism more seriously than many in the Labour party will be inclined to, with Jon Cruddas among some notable exceptions. One self-interested reason for doing so is that a more nuanced analysis with emerging thinking on the right should help Labour to sharpen its own positive account. If the Tories are simply evil wreckers, what more needs to be said for the alternative? One caveat though. Blond’s ‘Red Tory’ account of a possible conservative future is sophisticated and rich. By the same token, this is weakened, as Will Hutton noted yesterday, by his own account of Labour and centre-left thinking came across as an entirely one dimensional caricature (‘big state’) with barely an ounce more nuance than that which the Tory leadership itself would use on the six o’clock news, and which does nothing to explain the motivations

So let us see what Blond and Demos come up with. There were some intriguing signposts in yesterday’s event, including much that the modern right may indeed find revolutionary. Let me be quite clear that Blond’s is undoubtedly an account rooted in, and resurrected from, conservative ideas and traditions. He spoke about the need to “restore a modern version of medievalism” with a range of different types of property rights, relationships and duties of service and, when this was greeted with laughter, worried that “we have become an ahistorical people”. He reeled off vast numbers of conservative intellectual and political influences – Edmund Burke, Karl Polanyi, Harold Macmillan - rather too quickly for me to recall most of them. I would suggest it has a better claim to be “conservative” than Tim Montgomerie’s revivalist promotion of the Anglosphere New Right on ConservativeHome. But those will have to be very sharp disagreements. In terms of political sociology, Red Toryism begins as very much an insurgent minority: its opponents have been deeply active in constituency selections, and it would probably have a marginal presence in the internal party debate were it not for the leadership’s intriguing patronage of this debate.

After the Cameron session, Demos had put together a brainbox though all male panel including Philip Blond, Oliver Letwin, Jon Cruddas, John Gray, Will Hutton and Richard Reeves. It was interesting to see Blond answer questions alongside Letwin – undoubtedly among the most intellectually engaged politicians on either frontbench but a politician nonetheless. Blond’s strength (if it does not prove a fatal flaw) appeared to be his intellectual agility and honesty, being very much prepared to answer questions directly and take his arguments to their logical conclusion including when they stray into politically treacherous waters.

So Letwin dismissed a question about the need to enable downward as well as upward social mobility as too pessimistic - there could easily be much more room at the top – yet Blond nodded vigorously and said ‘exactly’ as the question was being asked, having earlier launched a sharp attack during the Cameron session on middle-class opportunity hoarding in education.

Blond grew increasingly animated about the need for economic protectionism (and there is certainly a long Tory tradition of tariffs and imperial preference there) – to rebalance the economy from the “fetishisation of big business” and to “shelter the growing economy we want to grow”, criticising the disastrous impact of NAFTA on the Mexican economy. Letwin, by contrast, wanted to be clear that “this is not a protectionist thesis, but is about trying to create diversity of opportunity” (while being very unclear about how he would then achieve the latter). John Gray – a critic of market liberalism – said that he had now absolutist objection to protectionism in principle but he would certainly take the lesson of history and be opposed to it now, in a global slump.

Blond had a very welcome focus on asset and wealth inequality, and the need to “recapitalise the poor” (ie, redistribute asset wealth to them). From 1976 to 2003, the share of national non-housing wealth held by the bottom half of the population had fallen from 12% to 1% and that of the top tenth from 57% to 71%. This was a case where the figures spoke for themselves, he said. Well, they do speak for themselves – but don’t the dates too? This was, for Blond, an indictment of New Labour. Thatcherism wasn’t mentioned in the leader’s presence at least. But those who now see the rise in inequality as an unfortunate unintended consequence might want to go back and re-read her 1975 ‘Let Our People Grow Tall’ speech to the Institute of Economic Affairs to remember that increased inequality was very much a central point of the exercise.

He even managed to follow through with mild criticism of both frontbenches on inheritance tax, saying he would personally prefer a lower threshold and IHT receipts to go to support assets for those who have none making him – along with Ferdinand Mount – among the few to defend the principle of taxing inherited wealth and to ensure having assets or not does not remain a deeply segregating inequality cascading from generation to generation.

Blond mounted a fairly fundamental critique of market liberalism, attacking the “bankrupt right” for its “market fundamentalism”. Blond wanted “the remoralisation of the economy; the relocalisation of the economy; and the recapitalization of the poor”. This was an argument which struck me as having many points of commonality – particularly in its strength of feeling against the large supermarkets and multinationals - with the New Economics Foundation, and indeed some linkages with Neal Lawson’s Compass on the Labour left, and none whatsoever with the Adam Smith Institute. Cameron demonstrated open-mindedness in wanting to be seen to engage with this - “I suppose the challenge to us is to say: you have recognized this in the social sphere. Why don’t you recognize it I the economy too?”. Still, I would be surprised to see that train of thought get too far down the tracks.

This critique of individualism and market liberalism earned a sharp riposte from Daniel Johnson of Standpoint, from the floor, who asked Cameron whether he agreed with Blond’s argument that Toryism must give priority to the community over the individual and, if he did, “what was the point of having a Conservative Party?”. Cameron didn’t duck that one. Johnson was offering him liberal individualism, and his conservatism would put responsibility first.

So there turned out to be much for Jon Cruddas – who declared himself an “enormous fan” of Blond’s – to engage with but Cruddas also supported my rather obvious question about the elephant in the room.

I suggested that, to be connected to its own political tradition, progressive conservatism must do two things.

Firstly, it must deal with the great rupture in conservative thinking caused by Thatcherism, and in particular by Keith Joseph’s famous claim that he discovered that he had not been a Conservative at all before 1974. This enabled Joseph and Thatcher to embrace Hayek (who, of course, had been famously clear that he was not a Conservative). David Marquand’s new book places David Cameron is in the progressive Whig tradition of Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath. But is that apostasy against Thatcherism something that the Tory leader could own? This could be dismissed as political symbolism. But symbolism can matter quite a lot in politics.

Secondly, there is a much more substantive if related question, it seems pretty clear that Blond’s agenda would involve challenging and rejecting the single most important idea in right-of-centre thinking in the last 35 years: that less state equals more freedom. Was the Conservative party ready to see that big idea ditched?

Letwin dived around this noting there were “various parodies of what Mrs Thatcher believed” and arguing that “Are you a Thatcherite now is a meaningless question. Thatcher wasn’t now”. Blond, having earlier dismissed the “market fundamentalism” of the “bankrupt right” as libertarian and anti-Tory, said that he honestly felt Thatcher’s was a “mixed legacy”, noting that she was a Tory distributionist on council house sales. The champion of “sound money” had not understood how financial deregulation and ending exchange controls would violate those principles in a credit fuelled boom but this, intriguingly, meant that she “didn’t understand capitalism”. Would she not have wept for the small shopkeepers of Grantham?

Both Gray and Hutton found this lack of a sensible account of the state the gaping weakness in Cameron’s agenda and the unresolved tension in Blond and Letwin’s. It still looks too much like wishing for nice things to happen out there in society. Gray noted that the progressive conservative project had been shaped on Thatcherite-Blairite terrain before the economic crisis. “The banking system didn’t collapse because the reserve powers of a big state were used” and that “in a world of disorderly globalization, who are people going to look to for shelter and protection? They will look to the state”. This was about “the logic of events” more than ideology, said Gray, who said that while state responses would inevitably be flawed in practice, he doubted whether any political project primarily motivated by diminishing this would have a future.

Letwin’s response was a “what works” scepticism about whether the state had much to offer in protection against globalisation. (But if the national state was flawed, could we really be ‘better protected from the winds of globalisation by the bottom up, not the top down’ by the local community, as Letwin suggested?). Richard Reeves acutely noted that this was to make the scale of the state simply an empirical and not a philosophical question. Letwin agreed: he was not interested in “dogma” on the question of the state. “So what’s left of Thatcherism?”, asked Reeves. Certainly Letwin’s had offered a more Blairite than Thatcherite account of the scope and limits of the state.

And so it is that Demos has spotted the gap in the ideas market because most of this is anathema to the think-tanks of the right. Policy Exchange, regularly written up as the most Cameroonian holds that position mainly by default, because most of the others are still more heavily dominated by either economic liberalism or Euroscepticism, or both, while Civitas has a Cameron-sceptic socially conservative agenda. Policy Exchange does consistently return to the theme of devolving power but, beyond Dean Godson’s neo-conservative approach to Islam and foreign affairs, much of its work seems primarily animated by the desire to shrink the state. It occasionally takes economic liberalism to the absurd lengths of its infamous ‘depopulate the north’ pamphlet, which Cameron described as ‘insane’. Ex-director Anthony Browne was hardly a social liberal, while new Director Neil O’Brien’s background has primarily been as an articulate Eurosceptic campaigner and researcher.

Iain Duncan Smith’s right-of-centre account of social justice, a pre-existing project adopted by the Tory leadership, has shaped a good deal of Cameron’s social discourse and agenda. This began as a rather traditionalist right account to compete on turf which had been left to the left, with the framing drawing very heavily on behavioural accounts of poverty, and on the right’s long-standing (and foundational) critique of the creation of the welfare state as crowding out voluntary and charitable initiative. A little of this may be changing with Duncan Smith more recently discovering and giving particular priority to the ‘early years’ agenda, advocating a cross-party concordat to significantly increase public spending in this area across the next two decades, which is certainly something the centre-left could make common cause on.

Both Attlee and Thatcher realised that entrenching political change depends on converting your opponents. Having aspired to a progressive consensus, Labour should not mock the adoption of progressive language on the right, but scrutinise it seriously. The Fabian tradition of permeation must at least welcome the assertion of ‘progressive ends’ even while the means remain enormously vague.

The contradictions of progressive conservatism will take much working through, to say the least. In all fairness, they are not their contradictions alone.

Thatcherism’s great unleashing of the forces of creative destruction showed how economic liberalism is deeply disruptive of social conservatism. John Major’s government, trapped in those contradictions, suffered a slow death at the hands of a newly ideologised party of the right.

So Tony Blair first rose to public prominence by articulating widely held communitarian instincts about the excesses of market liberalism; yet felt New Labour’s permission to govern depended on accepting much of that same economic settlement from which the unease had risen. Meanwhile Gordon Brown pursued, within this, the Croslandite social democratic strategy whereby it was economic growth which made redistribution and public investment possible. Whither social democracy without growth? We may now have to find that out. If scarcity returns, so does politics.

Blond yesterday, from the right, followed Ed Miliband and James Purnell at the Fabian conference last weekend in arguing that that Autumn 2008 is a profound a political rupture as the winter of discontent thirty years before. It was, said Blond, the end of the “market state” and “market fundamentalism”.

Both left and right now grope towards a deeper rethinking of both market and state. If the left needs to do more than simply reassert the now obvious limits of markets and the relevance of the state, it is the right which risks having an almost complete vacuum where its account of the state should be.

Still, Red Toryism is an intriguing thesis. Phillip Blond may prove to be that important and dangerous thing, an intellectual in politics. To trim his sails to fit current Tory orthodoxy would be a shame, and probably defeat the point. This type of engagement with political ideas is surely one thing which think-tankery should be doing. Politics, though, is something else again. I can’t help feeling that majority opinion in the Conservative Party will very much remain “better dead than red”.

This article originally appeared on the Liberal Conspiracy blog.  Read it here.

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