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Blue Labour? Red Tory? Reactionaries One and All?

8 June 2011

1:22 PM

8 June 2011

1:22 PM

It might seem axiomatic to observe that Red Tories and Blue Labourites must have as much in common as anything that might divide them. That’s one thing to take from Amol Rajan’s splendid overview of Philip Blond and Maurice Glasman’s attempts to refashion British politics. The other, I would suggest, is that Blond and Glasman’s rejection of liberalism leaves them on the reactionary side of the argument.

Perhaps that’s the right or most politically profitable place to be. Some polling seems to suggest this could be so, at least on the left. Glasman says it is "too simple to say that we are on the left on economic issues and on the right on social issues" but does little to refute the suspicion that this is, broadly speaking, a useful shorthand for the Blue Labour approach. Of course it’s something that could be said about the Red Tories too.

Glasman insists that he’s not nostalgic, far less a flat-earther but his admission that Blue Labour "do not believe that things will get better" is interesting, not least since it leaves one to ask why Ed Miliband is so tickled with or by a fellow who denies the obvious gains of recent decades. Those gains have come at a price in terms of social upheaval, for sure, but the benefits, I hazard, are greater than the losses. In any case, times change and so do countries.


Now, however, there’s a palpable sense that the clock must be wound back. Glasman and Blond are each so hostile to markets that they reject the freedom of movement that has done so much to increase human happiness these past twenty years. Glasman says free labour markets make human beings "commodities" fit only to serve a "bosses agenda", but protectionism is by definition in the commodities business too and, as ever, Glasman (like Blond) seems irredeemably hostile to the individual and his or her freedom. In this respect at least, it’s the libertarian-right that actually, touchingly, believes in the "Brotherhood of Man".

This becomes ever clearer when you notice how often these people talk about Family and Faith and Country. The spiritual renewal Glasman and Blond seem to think is necessary is, one suspects, a scolds’ agenda that’s the antithesis of a liberal live-and-let-live approach. Their hostility to markets seems to forget that markets are mainly a means to an end offering not just a more efficient but a more creative approach to policy. The market is the means by which individuals, on their own and in the end collectively too, make a difference. Choice is not a tyranny; it should be a liberation. And competition can raise standards in health, in education, in the provision of food, in transport and much else besides.

And yet despite this, it may be that Glasman and Blond (and John Gray) are on to something. The public mood is jittery, sceptical, distrusting and coercive. Many of the gains of recent years have been forgotten or marginalised. There’s been a reaction against capital and big business and some of that backlash is deserved. No wonder, then, that a new approach, built around family and faith and other Blood and Soil slogans familiar from Mosley and Mussolini are back in vogue. 

All this challenges liberalism and asks David Cameron (and Nick Clegg), in the British context, to defend liberalism from those who would assualt it from the populist right and left alike. Given the temper of the times, that’s quite a task but one that may yet become one of this government’s defining battles. If, that is, they choose to fight it.

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