Better Red Than Dead?

The Big Society was supposed to be the big idea that would sweep the leader of Britain’s Conservative party, David Cameron, into power in little more than a week’s time. Yet Cameron is struggling to sell the Big Society to the voters. The niggling problem he seems to be facing is that while the Big Society sounds OK, no one quite knows what it means, which has allowed his opponents to claim that this is just “the same old idea of laissez faire, self-help that we saw in the 1980s, in new clothes” (in the words of rising Labour star Ed Miliband, for example).

If the Big Society does mean free-market orthodoxy, then it is a betrayal of the man who is claimed to have shaped Cameron’s vision, Phillip Blond. In his new book, Red Tory, Blond lays out the philosophy behind the Big Society and gives it, and Mr Cameron, a big plug. The thesis of Red Tory, is in some ways uncontroversial – that neither big government nor the free market have served us particularly well in recent years – although Blond spices this all up with lots of finger-pointing and large dollops of nostalgia for a more civic past (as well as a little Catholic social thought from the likes of G.K. Chesterton).

Blond does, however, come up with an original mix of prescriptions. Some of them – a big redistributive tax hike by cutting tax relief on middle class pension contributions – are very red indeed and would never get into the manifesto of any political party, let alone the Conservatives. Others are just plain crackpot – turning the Royal Mail into a giant Soviet-style logistic network to transport everything from people to potatoes around the country (in eco-friendly vans that will be made in Britain to revive the motor industry).

Yet Red Tory does also lend its name to some good ideas. In The Road From Ruin we argue that tackling financial illiteracy and strengthening financial inclusion have to be part of rebuilding our economic system, which are both themes that Blond echoes (although his praise for the Community Reinvestment Act may raise a few eyebrows from conservatives in America who blame the financial crisis in large part on this legislation). Blond is also a fan of social investing and supports the creation of a Social Investment Bank (although it is not clear what makes these ideas Tory, since it was the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown who, back in 2000, convened the Social Investment Task Force that pioneered various innovative British approaches to social investing).

While there is some agreement between Red Tory and Philanthrocapitalism, we disagree fundamentally about capitalism. Blond thinks modern capitalism is so flawed that it must be destroyed and replaced with co-operative based economy of artisans and guilds, and has no vision for how capitalism can be part of building a better society.

Well, almost no vision. At the end of his chapter on ‘Creating Popular Capitalism’ Blond sings the praises of microfinance and draws encouragement from signs that pension funds have started to invest in an industry that “has paid out returns as high as 20%, while fulfilling an aim to lift households out of poverty.” Indeed. Microfinance is just one way that the tools of capitalism are being harnessed for social good by the philanthrocapitalists.

Rather than trying to dispatch capitalism to the dustbin of history, as Blond does, we think it is better to work out how businesses, investors and philanthropists can provide the skills and capital needed to drive social change. Moreover, as ordinary citizens work together as consumers, investors and givers to change the way our system works, so we can build the fairer, more responsible society that Blond craves.

In publishing, like much else in life, timing is everything. Britain’s general election is the perfect marketing hook for Red Tory. Sadly, the rush to publish seems to have gone to Blond’s head and the result is a messy, incoherent diatribe rather than a programme of meaningful reform. Maybe a sequel masterpiece, perhaps called The Big Society, is in the pipeline? Yet unless Blond’s political patron, David Cameron, can start to energise voters with some big ideas about how to build a big society, it may be too late.