It is always something of a shock to find an idea that had appeared to be buried by the modern world resuscitated and given something of the appearance of ‘news’, of novelty and freshness. And yet such is the case with the treatment given to Distributism by Phillip Blond, erstwhile theologian of ‘radical orthodoxy’, and lecturer at the University of Cumbria, England. Of course there has always been something in the soil and water of England, so to speak, from which these ideas can be re-seeded, and that is the ancient tradition of radical Toryism dating back to the seventeenth century (and beyond) and the faction that supported James, Duke of York, to succeed his brother Charles II as our last Catholic monarch (and incidentally the last de jure King of England, his true successor being HRH Franz Bonaventura Adalbert Maria Herzog von Bayern, Duke of Bavaria), and which was most memorably recuperated in the work of nineteenth century writers such as William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, later to become a kind of government ideology during the administrations of Benjamin Disraeli. This is also, incidentally, the seedbed from which the Pre-Raphaelites got the ideas that formed the basis for the arts and crafts movement, and which were combined with explicitly Catholic social thinking in the openly Distributist Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic by Eric Gill, David Jones and others.
The word tóraidhe, a Middle Irish word meaning ‘rebel’ or ‘outlaw’ was transformed into the modern English ‘Tory’ when it was applied to the Royalist faction during the English Civil War as an insult, but as a political force it was the struggle over the succession described above that formed their core allegiances, and the identity of the term with the Conservative Party dates only to 1832 at the time of Great Reform Act. It is an interesting feature of British politics, that modern conservatism, as a political force, was the brainchild of Edmund Burke, a Whig, and socially a classical liberal. Red Toryism, then, is something else, something indeed related to Burke and classical liberalism, but which has an older, still more corporate, sense of society, stemming ultimately from the Catholic middle ages. Of course it is scarcely a feature of contemporary British politics, even conservative politics, which from at least the time of Sir Edward Heath’s last administration (1970-1974) when the infamous Selsdon document introduced monetarist and free-market policies, has been set irrevocably (it seems) on the road of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism. Blond is right to see Enoch Powell as the last major voice in the older conservatism of the Tories: an enormously intelligent and learned man, and a great classical scholar, now habitually caricatured as a thuggish racist after his 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech on the dangers of mass migration and multiculturalism (interesting that his predictions have now almost all been borne out). This speech led to his dismissal from the shadow cabinet by Heath before the election, although he was never so popular among ordinary, very often working class, Tory voters. Indeed the 1970 victory for the Conservative Party was largely a result of Powell’s popularity with these working class voters. But, Blond notes, ‘it was not his “rivers of blood” speech that really drew these new votes. It was Powell’s implicit appeal to an earlier non-statist society governed by duty, obligation and equal participation in free trade that captured working class support much more than his warnings about the destruction of working-class communities through opening up of housing lists to new migrants.’ (p. 105) And it is this vision of ‘an earlier non-statist society governed by duty, obligation and equal participation in free trade’ that forms the basis of Blond’s vision for Britain too. It is, in its essence, Distributism.
Blond is up front about this, and in the introductory chapter to his book, in addition to such political movements as Lord Randolph Churchill’s Primrose League (a social Toryism of the 1880s and 1890s), he cites explicitly ‘Hilaire Belloc’s 1912 tour de force The Servile State’ (p. 29) as a primary source of his thinking. Blond goes on:
In these pages [Belloc] denounces both capitalism and socialism–both, he argues, institute master-slave relations and both rely on dispossession. The capitalist monopolises land, ownership and capital, thereby dispossessing the self-sufficient who are then forced to work for subsistence wages with no prospect of elevation. The socialist dispossesses the populace in the name of general ownership and a communal monopoly. From the perspective of the peasant or the worker both philosophies are exactly the same–both rely on dispossession, both deliver subsistence wages and both make the worker passive and dependent. (pp. 29-30)
Blond then recounts the development of the Distributist League and, importantly, shows how, despite Belloc and Chesterton being ‘radical liberals’ (Blond’s rather misleading description), they were enormously influential on Conservative Party policy writers like Noel Skipton, who was responsible for the development of the concept of a property-owning democracy in the 1920s, and whose plan was largely incorporated in Anthony Eden’s speech to the Conservative Party conference of 1946 calling for ‘a nationwide property-owning democracy’. Of course the closest we came to such a ‘democracy’ was Margaret Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy that saw vast quantities of public housing sold off in the 1980s, but little else.
It is a decided weakness of Blond’s argument (indeed his whole position) that he sees the Conservative Party as the only viable political institution that could incorporate these ideas in British public life. But there’s the rub, too. Blond actually has the ear of senior political figures in the British establishment, including the current Prime Minister David Cameron. Indeed in the last couple of years he has been quite a celebrity in ‘progressive’ Tory circles. Important vehicles for expounding his ideas have been an article in The Guardian newspaper, ‘The true Tory progressives’ (Friday, 30 May 2008), and interviews and articles on BBC radio, in Prospect magazine, and elsewhere, as well as significant commentary like John Harris’s piece, also for The Guardian, ‘Phillip Blond: The man who wrote Cameron’s mood music’ (Saturday, 8 August 2009). The danger is that Blond is too successful and that he is ultimately corrupted by these paymasters. Another recent book, Peter Hitchens’s The Cameron Delusion (a reprint of the The Broken Compass) demonstrates beyond all doubt that the Conservative Party has essentially sold out to left-liberal ideology, Cameron in particular coming in for detailed scrutiny. Indeed his Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has notoriously made grovelling encomia to that arch neo-con Tony Blair, and a cigarette paper couldn’t fit in the space between him and Cameron in terms of ideological commitments.
But that is not the whole story. Blond also appeared at the Distributist conference at Oxford organised by the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture in 2009, and has clearly already had an impact on some American Distributist thinkers (see for example ‘Mr Brooks meets Mr Blond’ in The American Catholic, and a number of notices in The Distributist Review). This is intriguing: Blond, a former academic theologian (a High Anglican at that), has attempted to produce a series of policy ideas, through his newly formed think tank Res Publica, that would introduce essentially Distributist social and economic ideas into UK government policy. And now the very man he wooed, David Cameron, is Prime Minister. But what are those ideas in practice, and what chance do they really have of becoming policy?
In brief Blond is committed to making credit and capital available at local level for small communities of people to start their own businesses, and to take direct control of the provision of services through various forms of joint local ownership. He perceives this as a means of re-establishing local communities and the traditional family. Further, he conceives this as resulting from a whole range of different policy commitments. Examples include: re-directing pension tax relief in order to encourage the build up of capital assets among those who have none; transferring assets from local government directly to community co-operatives; the establishment and extension of community land trusts that acquire land for community use (including local market gardening); the idea of community allowances and time banking, that create alternative local economies on the basis of a kind of barter (time banking, as the name implies, would see time spent in an activity as a saveable and exchangeable commodity within small communities), which Blond hopes might help those on benefits find other means of re-gaining access to the productive economy; adjustable business rates; community development finance institutions; and, interestingly, a complete transformation of the Post Office service so that it can provide a kind of alternative banking and a source of micro-finance for small family businesses. (see pp. 201-237)
These are all laudable aims, no doubt, but already only one month into the new Lib-Con government, the wheels are beginning to come off any hope that Blond’s vision might actually become a viable source of government policy. One of the first things George Osborne and David Laws (who, incidentally, has already resigned his post on the basis of corruption charges) did, having taken over the Treasury, was to announce that the Child Trust Fund would be scrapped. This fund, introduced by the last Labour government, saw every child given a small starter sum that parents would then contribute to regularly through various forms of savings policies, and which would, by the time the child turned 18, provide a capital lump sum that could be spent on education, training, or perhaps even starting a business. It was, in essence, one of the best mass savings schemes the UK had seen in years, and was, according to Blond, a highly successful and important initiative in an age of wide scale penury and indebtedness. Now it’s gone, and the imperative to save and cut back government spending (admittedly absolutely essential) sees not only worthless and parasitical quangos and government departments going, but also, unfortunately, a narrowing of imagination in policy development. Simply put, we cannot rely on a government that is still essentially committed to a liberal-leftist and statist agenda to un-sink its claws and provide the kind of local dissolution of state control that Distributist and Catholic social thinking requires, and which the success of Blond’s suggested initiatives would necessarily be preceded by.
So, what of ‘Red Toryism’? I have shown that there are still the traces in Britain of the desire, at least, for ‘an earlier non-statist society governed by duty, obligation and equal participation in free trade’. But Blond’s emphasis is concentrated too much on changing government policy, which in the current climate (an understatement) is most probably a forlorn hope. I don’t wish to denigrate the importance of making these claims, or of addressing these issues to government, and certainly Blond’s think tank Res Publica has produced an impressive array of plausible policies designed to genuinely distribute, rather than merely re-distribute wealth, with all that that implies in terms of independence, natural liberty and natural association, as opposed to the managed tyranny of socialist ‘administration’. But Catholics sensitive to the ways of the world need to be prepared to adopt and adapt these ideas even in the face of government opposition. One of the advantages of a number of Blond’s policy ideas is that many of them could be adopted even by small groups of the faithful who wish to rely on their own community rather than wait for the state to meet their demands. In Britain what we desperately need is not so much a Catholic Land Movement as a Catholic Village Movement. This is already a tendency in America, but so far traditional Catholics in the UK have largely failed to live up fully to the ideal of the parish as the fundamental social unit above the family. We need families to come together to live in specific locales, and to live the traditional Catholic life in genuine communities in order for the spark of Blond’s ideas to be properly ignited. Once such natural communities develop around a parish, and communal worship, then it will make sense for them to, even spontaneously, adopt many of the ideas in Blond’s book, and to make them realities in spite of whatever else may be going on. As the vast majority of the population in the UK live in towns and cities, such Catholic ‘villages’ may well have to form within the rotting urban centres of our cities, transforming them from the inside. The important thing is that each such ‘village’ is centred around a church: a place offering the traditional Catholic sacraments and traditional Catholic teachings.
It is understandable, perhaps, that Blond, who is trying to influence a militantly secular government, should conveniently forget God and religion, but ultimately that is what is missing in his account. No matter what policies, what incentives, or what advantages may be offered to people, Blond’s vision of ‘an earlier non-statist society governed by duty, obligation and equal participation in free trade’ will never again be a possibility unless those duties and obligations are ordered to God, unless it is the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ that governs the way families relate to each other in their parishes and in their social and economic lives. What an indictment it is that Blond, a theologian, should avoid making the single most important claim in his book: that Broken Britain can never be healed unless it submits to the authority of God in Christ Jesus. People will never form healthy, joyful and prosperous communities unless they can look beyond the limitations of this world to the hereafter, to what is enduring and eternal. That yearning, unfortunately for the pretensions of the secularists, is more or less hard-wired into the human soul. Without wishing to end on a cliché, it must nevertheless be said once more that it is only through the Catholic Church that we can be saved, and it is only in an authentic Catholic community (of which the traditional parish is the model) that the social life of man can truly flourish. So let us not wait for our politicians to give us any more handouts, but begin to build a Catholic Village Movement and, why not, steal those ideas that Blond outlines, insofar as they address conditions as they stand today, and are practical and conducive to the life of faith.