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Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In the UK


I've been thinking about the UK and not just because the last movie I watched was MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis which was filmed in England :) I've noticed two things lately on the combo of British politics and religion ...

An audio interview with NT Wright about the failure (as he sees it) of secular government - Dr Tom Wright: 'The long failure of the enlightenment project' (and a comment on this interview by Andrew Brown - Bishop Tom vs the Enlightenment)

A article in The London Review of Books on Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it by Phillip Blond, a mentor to the British prime minister, Cameron ..... Cameron’s Crank by Jonathan Raban. Although I've been having some difficulty understanding what red toryism is (see What connects Cameron to Italian Catholics) I think I'm beginning to understand it (correctly or not) as the British equivalent of the US religious right but with Catholic/Anglican religious mystique rather than Protestant Evangelical. I thought I'd post part of the book review as it mentions something I've been interested in - John Rawls' idea of justice (see my post Justice as fairness).

Here's a bit of the book review ....

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It’s been a quarter-century since I last listened to The Archers on Radio 4 ..... they’ve been chiming insistently with my reading of Phillip Blond’s Red Tory and my listening to David Cameron’s ‘big society, small government’ speeches. When Cameron speaks of Britain’s ‘atomised’ and ‘broken’ society, and calls for a return to a ‘broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation’, or Blond writes about the ‘revival of the associative society’, in which the ‘common good’ is ‘cultivated organically from within’, it’s Ambridge that they have in mind. The rhetoric of both men seems to be shot through with plaintive rural nostalgia for the small, self-contained life of the village; for a world where ‘frontline services’ are ‘delivered’ from within the community by the church, the WI and the Over Sixties Club, where no one dies unnoticed by his neighbours, the pub serves as a nightly local parliament, ‘ethos’ is reinforced by the vicar in the pulpit of St Stephen’s and ‘mutuality’ flourishes in the gossip at the shop ......

Since the immediate inspiration for this improbable scenario has been Phillip Blond, I suppose everyone has a duty to plough through Red Tory. Blond writes a kind of polytechnic prose in which the various jargons of philosophy, sociology, economics and theology are churned together as in a concrete mixer ..... the intellectual kernel, as it were, of his assault on the modern state (he means the New Labour government) as ‘the triumph of a perverted and endlessly corrupting liberalism’. After a drive-by shooting of John Rawls (‘he had no convincing vision of the good society or the good life’), and a wildly constructive misreading of Rawls’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’, Blond ties himself in verbal knots as he tries to assert that the liberal state is destined to become a tyranny precisely because it values individual rights too highly. Whatever merits there might perhaps be in this argument are lost in bluster, hyperbole and impenetrably bad writing .....

Once upon a time, long before the Industrial Revolution spoiled everything, it was different: Britain had an ‘organic culture’, a ‘vibrant agrarian culture’ with a ‘prosperous and relatively secure British peasantry’. In the good old days, everyone went to church, of course, and religion supplied the ‘transcendent idea of the good’, whose absence in our sorry, secular society is the root cause of our national misery. What we must now do, the parson says, is somehow resurrect the ‘British culture of virtue’; we need ‘a civil society built around the practice of virtue and exploration of the good’. For a start, schools must provide ‘education into the good’, but we ‘cannot have a moral society without a moral economy’, and it’s on the matter of the moral economy and the ‘moral market’, and how they might be achieved, that Blond’s sermon builds to its utopian climax.

He alludes, in passing, but with high approval, to G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and their Catholic Distributist League. Aside from one quotation from Chesterton (‘Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists’) and one from Belloc (‘If we do not restore the institution of property we cannot escape restoring the institution of slavery’), Blond leaves the Chesterbelloc project – of which more in a moment – unexplored, but almost everything he says about the moral economy derives from it .....

In his final chapter, Blond, hailing Cameron’s ‘vision’, admiringly quotes him giving voice to thoughts he’s borrowed from Blond, which, in turn, Blond has borrowed from Chesterton and Belloc. ‘As Cameron pointed out, “The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them”’: this is pure Blond, especially in its but what does it mean? quotient. Does ‘them’ mean the singular ‘individual’? Does ‘individuate’ mean something like ‘make more “individualist”, and therefore selfish’? Who can tell. Cameron, who is usually plausibly articulate, abuses and misuses the language in a very Blondlike way when trying to channel his house philosopher. Blond tells us that Cameron offers ‘an associative society that is based on human relationships’, and pays this tribute to his pupil: ‘Cameron is crafting a politics of meaning that speaks to something more wanted and more needed than welfarism or speculative enrichment: it is the common project that the state has destroyed – nothing less than the recovery of the society we have lost and creation of the society we want.’ It doesn’t say much for Cameron’s vaunted intellect or his judgment that he is the willing mouthpiece for Blond’s secondhand ideas. The ‘moderniser’ of the Conservative Party has now found what he calls his ‘guiding philosophy’ in what began as Chesterton’s and Belloc’s homesickness for a rural and small-town life that never existed outside their Arcadian dream of Merrie England ......

If Cameron were to look into the unsavoury ancestry of his big idea, he might be surprised to find out that it was originally hatched by two admirers of Mussolini’s Italy. As Belloc, who despised all forms of elective parliamentary government ‘save in aristocracies’, wrote in The Cruise of the Nona: ‘What a strong critical sense Italy has shown! What intelligence in rejection of sophistry, and what virility in execution! May it last!’ Fascism is not what Cameron has in mind, but his embrace of Blond’s crankish political philosophy makes one wonder what on earth he does have in mind.

Cameron badly wants to win the election, and a big idea, however tainted its source, however underexamined and ill-thought-out, is a useful thing to brandish at the electorate, especially if it provides a cloak of nobility and ‘ethos’ for the old Conservative ambition to take a cleaver and sunder the connection between the words ‘welfare’ and ‘state’. Stripped of its obscurantist rhetoric and foggy sermonising, Red Tory issues a moral licence to government to free itself from the expensive business of dispensing social services and to dump them on the ‘third sector’ of charities, voluntary organisations, non-profits and the like. It won’t make Britain a more virtuous, civil, courteous or moral society. It certainly won’t restore us to that happy state of grace and comity in which, apparently, we all lived in medieval times. It won’t please Phillip Blond, who, in a recent article for Prospect titled ‘Why Cameron Shouldn’t Lurch to the Right’, berated the Conservatives for reverting to their ‘vestigial Thatcherite instincts’ when faced with narrowing poll numbers, and accused them of reneging on his (and the Distributist League’s) project of ‘recapitalising’ the poor to create a ‘popular capitalism for all’. It won’t even meet with much approval down in Ambridge. But it ought to make Lord Tebbit’s wintry face crease into a smile.

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I'm as much a fan of the past as the next person - I used to belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism :) - but while it's a nice place to visit, I wouldn't want to live there, and much less would I want to live in the past that never was, invented by those who advocate a Catholic Third Way - maybe it's not so surprising that the political philsophy most associated with them is fascism.


3 Comments:

Blogger Jonathan Raban said...

You write, "Although I've been having some difficulty understanding what red toryism is (see What connects Cameron to Italian Catholics) I think I'm beginning to understand it (correctly or not) as the British equivalent of the US religious right but with Catholic/Anglican religious mystique rather than Protestant Evangelical." I think you're dead right. Remember how Sarah Palin played the rural-nostalgia card in her memorable speech as McCain's running-mate? "We grow good people in our small towns..."--words attributed by her (and her speechwriter, Matthew Scully) to "a writer". The author was Westbrook Pegler, a columnist so far to the right that even the John Birch Society stopped publishing his work in their newsletter, because his views were "too extreme" for them.

Both David Cameron and Phillip Blond have (how does one say it?) intellectual tendencies--not something one associates with Ms Palin. But she shares with them almost exactly the same vision of a big, post-industrial nation rooted to rural, small-town, church values. Her church, like her mind, is narrower than theirs, but they're cousins under the skin.

Writing (from the US) about Cameron and Blond, I found Palin and her followers in the Tea Party movement coming insistently to mind. Palin is far to the right of even the conservative wing of the British Conservative Party, but they share something--dangerously, I think--in common.

6:02 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mr. Raban,

Thanks for commenting!

Yes, I haven't written much about Sarah Palin since the past election, but she's indeed scary.

6:29 PM  
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