It’s been a quarter-century since I last listened to The Archers on Radio 4, so I’m out of touch. I read in the papers that Phil Archer, or at least Norman Painting, who played him, died recently, but is Jill still around? Where’s Shula? What’s with Eddie Grundy? Old Walter Gabriel must be long gone, but what happened to his scapegrace son, Nelson? Are the village shop and post office still open, or does everyone in Ambridge have to drive to Borchester to shop at Tesco? Is The Bull now part of the portfolio of Punch Taverns plc?
I ask these important questions because, last week, clicking on the podcast of another Radio 4 programme, I found it beginning with the closing notes of The Archers’ maddeningly memorable, merry-men-of-morris theme music, and since then 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. In the Ambridge I remember, everybody pulled together to win the Borsetshire Best Kept Village competition; in Cameron’s new Britain, he promises to appoint himself to the chairmanship of the Best Kept Nation committee. In the Hugo Young memorial lecture last November, he said:
If we stick the course and change this country then we will have a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility. We will feel it in the strength of our relationships – the civility and courtesy we show to each other … And we will feel it in our culture – a new can-do and should-do attitude where Britons once again feel in control of their lives. This is not the work of one parliamentary term, or even two … It will take more than a generation.
So, in 2035 or thereabouts, Britain, with a population of more than 70 million, should look a lot more like Ambridge and a lot less like Barking and Dagenham or Stoke-on-Trent. I wish I could be there to see it.
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. His method of argument is to connect strings of unrelated assertions with the words ‘thus’ and ‘then’ and ‘hence’. For someone who so bemoans the disappearance of ‘civility’ from modern British life, Blond is extraordinarily uncivil to his readers, belabouring them with sentences like ‘Liberalism, then, paradoxically tends to promote a totalising unity within an overriding collectivist framework that nullifies opposition in the very name of negative freedom,’ and, on the next page: ‘Thus, the state is driven to homogenise individuality in the very name of individual diversity. Individual liberty becomes inexorably the “general will” of the social whole and the only truly [sic] freedom belongs to that individual writ large – which is the state.’ When unscrambled, those two sentences turn out to be 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.
Behind the smokescreen of jargon and false logic, what Blond is really saying is both simple and depressingly familiar. Red Tory is like a 300-page Sunday sermon, preached by an autodidact country parson whose shelves are stuffed with old blue and white Pelican books on subjects like modern psychology, literature, sociology, government and economics, which the parson (in civilian life, Blond used to be a lecturer in theology) believes must hold the key to the alien and ugly civilisation he encounters on his parish rounds. We have sunk, Parson Blond says, into a condition of ‘rootless cultural relativism’, godless and cynical, in which there is ‘a pervading lack of daily joy’. He blames the Bloomsbury Group, especially Lytton Strachey; the disillusioned war memoirs of Graves and Sassoon; the ‘self-hating cultural elite’ of John Osborne, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin; the libertarian narcissism of the 1960s; Paul Watson’s 1974 BBC series about the Wilkins clan, The Family, ‘reality television’ in general and Big Brother in particular; the Bloomsburyite economist J.M. Keynes (whose name Blond revealingly pronounced as ‘Keens’ in a televised debate that I watched on the internet) and the pernicious laissez-faire doctrines of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School.
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 the new virtuous Britain, the banks will be small and many, each rooted in its native town and region. Companies will be ‘social enterprises’, owned by their employees on the model of the John Lewis Partnership. Wealth will be redistributed so as to ‘recapitalise’ the poor. Trade guilds, upholding ethical standards of practice, and community associations of every kind will flourish. Companies will no longer seek the destruction by takeover of their rivals, rendering monopoly obsolete. Ownership, and the power that goes with it, will spread from the top downwards, and from the centre out to far-flung local communities. The tyrannous state will shrink as it surrenders most of its functions to charities and co-operatives in which every member has his own financial share. A spirit of rediscovered mutuality will sweep across the land.
Here and there, a few more detailed glimpses of how things will be emerge, as when Blond explains his proposal to ‘mutualise’ the Post Office, with its ‘incredible infrastructure’, by turning it into a galaxy of local, community-owned co-ops, operating under a franchise, and ‘harnessing two powerful forces: the insight and dedication of postmen and women and the great affection for the Post Office still felt by citizens and communities’. The UK car industry will greatly benefit from the commission of a massive fleet of new, specially adapted, fuel-efficient, hybrid red vans, which will roam the country, carrying passengers and goods as well as mail. Local food producers and retailers will buy into the co-ops, so that, in some remote country solitude, you’ll answer the postman’s knock at your cottage door, and get not just the usual sheaf of bills but your week’s supply of groceries, asparagus picked that morning from Mr Gummidge’s smallholding, and Auntie Bee in person, large as life and just as blowsy.
I suspect that Blond keeps strategically mum about Belloc, Chesterton and the Distributist League because he doesn’t want to reveal the essential weakness of his hand: it would be too like admitting that he was a fan of Major Douglas’s Social Credit scheme, of which I was also reminded when reading his book. The league (Eric Gill, a Catholic convert, was another prominent member) was a near contemporary of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose ruralist, anti-urban, anti-industrial predisposition it enthusiastically shared. In Belloc’s words, the league’s fundamental political and economic principles boiled down to ‘the control of the means of production by the family unit’. His prime example of the family unit was Joseph, ‘a free and lawful man’ who ‘lived from his own’ (as Belloc did, from freelance writing), supported by his loyal spouse, Mary, and who took on his son, Jesus, as an apprentice in the family carpentry business.
The moral society, as imagined by the Distributists, was a verdant quilt of small farms, artists’ and writers’ rose-trellised cottages, shops, workshops, churches and pubs (‘When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England,’ Belloc wrote in The Four Men). Everyone would be the mortgage-free owner of his property. There’s room in the picture for ancient market towns and cathedral cities, but places like London, Birmingham, Sheffield are hard to find in the Distributists’ fair field full of folk, and there appears to be little or no intervening history between Langland’s 14th-century Worcestershire and Belloc and Chesterton’s Sussex and Buckinghamshire. In 1929 Chesterton posted the Distributist manifesto in G.K.’s Weekly.
All who believe that ownership in the means of livelihood is normal to man, and necessary to liberty, and all who dislike and distrust the concentration of control advocated by Socialists and practised by Monopolists, should join the League …
THE LEAGUE offers the only practical alternative to the twin evils of Capitalism and Socialism. It is equally opposed to both; they both result in the concentration of property and power in a few hands to the enslavement of the majority.
THE LEAGUE stands
For the Liberty of the Individual and the Family Against interference by busybodies, monopolies, or the State.
Personal Liberty will be restored mainly by the better Distribution of Property (i.e. ownership of land, houses, workshops, gardens, means of production etc).
The Better Distribution of Property will be achieved by protecting and facilitating the ownership of individual enterprises in land, shops and factories.
Thus THE LEAGUE fights for:
Small Shops and Shopkeepers against multiple shops and trusts.
Individual Craftmanship and Co-operation in industrial enterprises. (Every worker should own a share in the Assets and Control of the business in which he works.)
The Small Holder and the Yeoman Farmer against monopolists of large inadequately farmed estates.
And the Maximum, instead of the minimum initiative on the part of the citizen.
One could hardly have a better summary of Red Tory, since this tract seems to be the source from which Blond has cribbed the bulk of his ideas about the British culture of virtue. Chesterton’s proposals would go down well at the bar of The Bull: Ambridge is – or was when I used to listen to The Archers – the spiritual capital of the small, self-sufficient entrepreneur, craftsman and farmer, ‘living from his own’ in a green and pleasant land; but what meaning they might have for people on sink estates or in sprawling, ethnically diverse conurbations, like those of the Midlands and the North, is beyond comprehension. Like his literary predecessors, Blond, when he thinks of England, sees mainly its church-spire-haunted countryside.
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.
In a speech on 31 March, Cameron said:
Some people say that there are no big ideas left in politics. But I don’t agree. I think this is about as big as it gets. It’s not the big state that is going to tackle our social problems and increase our wellbeing. It’s the Big Society. And we know we have to use the state to help remake our society.
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.