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David Cowan: Are Red Toryism and Blue Labour one and the same thing?

Picture 13 David Cowan is an intern at the Institute for Economic Affairs and will be going to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the autumn to read History.

There have been two phenomena written about of late in the Conservative and Labour parties. First came Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’ which contributed towards Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ vision. Now Lord Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ has been gaining currency with its supposed appeal to the patriotic working class.

Both Blond and Glasman have emphasised a communitarian view of society which does lead one to wonder whether or not these two ideas are in fact one and the same, despite coming from two different traditions. I would argue that they both stem from a wider traditional conservative movement which has its roots in both the Tory and Labour traditions before the social liberalism of the 1960s and economic liberalism of the 1980s.

These modes of thought hold true to Lord Salisbury’s dictum that “delay is life”. They hold a Burkean conception of society as an organic entity where it is the social bonds between us, rather than individual rights, which matter. They see people as living in an ‘atomised’ existence in which marriage, family, community, country, the appreciation of beauty, and religion play a less crucial role than they did before the 1960s ‘liberal revolution’.

Within this framework, state institutions are also seen to be in need of conservation, such as the NHS and the Post Office, as they can act as an anchor in the community. In response to the entropy brought about by economic liberalism, both ‘Red Toryism’ and ‘Blue Labour’ choose co-operatives and social enterprises as more sound models for economic development, public services, and re-establishing a ‘civic spirit’ in society. Blond and Glasman argue that liberalism has eroded the social bonds and state institutions which are vital for a cohesive society, and replaced them with a banal consumer society where selfishness, greed, and love of self, instead of others, is celebrated.

The primary threat to their desire for a more communitarian society is the free economy and globalisation, which is why Blond and Glasman are opposed to international institutions which spread free market ‘dogma’, like the World Trade Organisation. They also claim that ‘big businesses’ at home and abroad ‘monopolise’ markets, exploit workers, and systematically destroy the environment.

This diagnosis of capitalism leads to the belief that the state has to protect local communities from markets by intervening in the market and breaking up ‘big businesses’ like Tesco’s, supplying subsidies, ensuring that local food supplies go towards the local community, and engaging in ‘fair trade’ to protect producers. The ‘local economy’ is praised by both Red Tories and Blue Labourites who wish to see the local pub, local grocers, and local book shop flourish instead of being snuffed out by ‘big businesses’.

Ultimately, this attempt to move the state’s efforts towards protecting local producers is a new form of ‘mercantilism’ which is diametrically opposed to the changes brought about by globalisation. This opposition to foreign, and even national, competition is motivated by a desire to preserve the unity and cohesion of the community.

‘Red Toryism’ and ‘Blue Labour’ also argue that the nation must be upheld against external and internal forces which may erode the independence of the national ‘territory’. Roger Scruton wrote a robust argument for the ‘nation state’ in England and the Need for Nations where he argued that a cohesive society can only be protected by a unified ‘nation state’ based on national loyalty and a strong sense of belonging. In policy terms, this translates into a desire for a more traditional education system, ending multiculturalism, controlled immigration, preserving the constitution, and withdrawing from multilateral institutions such as the European Union.

However, this defence of the ‘nation state’ rests very much on the identity of ‘England’ rather than of ‘Britain’. After devolution ‘Britain’ as a unitary state ended. This breakdown in the Union has already led to the triumph of collectivist nationalism in Scotland with the rise of Alex Salmond’s SNP. ‘Red Toryism’ and ‘Blue Labour’ are the results of similar discontentment in England caused by an unsatisfactory quasi-federal settlement where English subsidies fund Scottish welfare, and Scottish votes determine English laws. It is the revival of English nationalism which is providing the seed bed for the wider traditional conservative movement. However, this nationalism is constrained by the old sense of British identity.

I would argue that ‘Red Toryism’ and ‘Blue Labour’ are two different expressions of the same conservative philosophy. It is a reactionary, traditionalist, and communitarian philosophy based on the three pillars of the ‘civic spirit’, ‘mercantilism’, and the ‘nation state’. However, ‘Red Toryism’ and ‘Blue Labour’ do not hold a monopoly over these ideas.

The new traditionalist conservative movement has many participants including public intellectuals, pressure groups, and spans across all parties. Peter Hitchens has long lamented the marginalisation of traditionalist conservatism by the “new liberal consensus on social and moral matters which has ruled Britain ever since 1945". With the traditional conservative movement growing on the back of English nationalism is it possible that they could dictate the future electoral success of the Conservative and Labour Parties?


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