Blond vision of a just society has the Tories swooning

An Anglican academic is urging the party to discard the Thatcher legacy, writes Melanie Newman

October 9, 2008

With his crumpled air force blue suit and long fringe, Phillip Blond cut an incongruous figure among the forensically well-turned-out Conservatives at the party's conference last week. His political views - espoused in regular columns in The Guardian and The Independent - are equally distinct from those of the Tory mainstream: he is so critical of Thatcherism that he admits he was applauded by Socialists as well as Conservatives after a recent speech to a conference in Rome.

But in Birmingham last week, it was clear that the party leadership, while staying loyal to Thatcher, had accepted the 42-year-old University of Cumbria academic as a valuable contributor. Mr Blond is understood to be assisting Conservative leader David Cameron's speech-writers and Shadow Chancellor George Osborne's Treasury team.

At the same time, political think-tanks are falling over themselves to secure his services. After a fringe meeting at which he joined a panel with Oliver Letwin, chairman of the party's policy review, the representative of one organisation was overheard suggesting that the academic name his price for a move to London.

Given Mr Blond's obvious intellect, trenchant condemnation of left-wing social policy and his support for localism - which chimes with the Tory emphasis on decentralisation - the Conservatives' enthusiasm for this man of the moment is perhaps less of a surprise than the fact that he is not a professor of economics, but a senior lecturer in philosophy and theology at Cumbria, one of the country's newest universities.

Educated at the universities of Hull, Warwick and Cambridge, Mr Blond also spent time in New York at the New School for Social Research. "I've always been political because I've always been interested in 'the good society'," he said.

"I started out thinking that political problems could be solved by philosophy, then decided that philosophical problems could be solved only by theology."

He converted to Christianity at the age of . "I remember very clearly reading St John's Gospel and deciding that it was utterly philosophically - intellectually - convincing. I've been teaching and studying theology ever since."

An Anglican with a deep interest in Catholic social thought, he believes that European Catholic societies, with their conformity to social values, are superior to our own. "Walking through English towns at night, you see age-segregated space policed by single-sex groups of increasingly violent or drunken young adults."

The strong social links enjoyed by his mother's family, who were part of the Catholic working class in Liverpool, have been, he said, "utterly destroyed", leaving an "atomised" secular society in which the old and vulnerable are isolated.

While acknowledging the complex reasons behind this change, Mr Blond believes the rise of liberalism bears much of the responsibility. "Liberalism destroyed the traditions of the Left and Right," he said. "The Left stopped thinking about the social in terms of civil society in 1945 when it embraced the state, and in the post-1968 embrace of the individual it became thoroughly libertarian way before Mrs Thatcher. The new Left thus created the conditions for Thatcherite economics, through which the Right also betrayed society."

Movements such as feminism fragmented society because they pursued individualist goals at the expense of wider relationships, believes the lecturer, who said he would support a ban on abortion.

"Sixties feminists pursued female emancipation - which I agree with - on a male model of emancipation so that women face barriers today in terms of pregnancy not being properly accounted for by employers and the fact that men now tend to treat women as versions of themselves, as people who can be abandoned and to whom they owe no particular responsibilities."

Balanced society

By the 1990s, Mr Blond was already persuaded by the concept of communitarianism, which seeks to balance individual rights with those of the community. But, he said, "what really ended the Left for me was new Labour, which was more Thatcherite than Mrs Thatcher in its use of the state as a vehicle to marketise everything".

In higher education, competition for students has led to a "cultural retreat" so that only a handful of universities now run theology departments, he said. He points also to the decline in modern foreign languages since studying a language to GCSE level ceased to be compulsory.

"The idea of choice has destroyed our cultural legacy; now it's only rich kids at private schools who will be able to speak foreign languages. Choice is not a self-evident good. Those who endorse choice provide no account of the possibility of choosing wrongly, or of what actually one should choose."

While many in the party see Thatcherism as conservatism, he describes it as an "aberration".

"It represents the triumph of Whig ideology over (true) Conservative philosophy, which privileges virtue, traditional culture, widely distributed property and the power of civic society."

In his book on radical Conservativism, Red Tory (for which he is seeking a publisher), Mr Blond argues that Conservatives should view state interference and the unrestrained individualism of the market as equally destructive of society.

Mr Blond believes that until the Tories recognise the role of Thatcherism in the current economic crisis and in creating the "broken society" described in former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith's 2007 report, the party will not progress.

"The report is brilliant, but the role of economics in impoverishment is missing. An economic account of the broken society would need to be self-critical about the role Thatcher played. We need to follow a path towards 'one-nation' economics in which markets are subservient to the community."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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