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There has been a bit of a stir recently about ‘Red-Toryism’ or ‘progressive conservatism’. Phillip Blond laid out the political philosophy behind the names recently in Prospect. Roughly, it consists in a return to the civic capitalism of one-nation conservatism. The thesis is that the individualism of Thatcherism was a blip in conservative thinking which is in actual fact naturally communitarian in bent – concerned with fostering and preserving social well-being through connected and empowered communities.

There has been a bit of a stir recently about ‘Red-Toryism’ or ‘progressive conservatism’. Phillip Blond laid out the political philosophy behind the names recently in Prospect. Roughly, it consists in a return to the civic capitalism of one-nation conservatism. The thesis is that the individualism of Thatcherism was a blip in conservative thinking which is in actual fact naturally communitarian in bent – concerned with fostering and preserving social well-being through connected and empowered communities.

Blond’s big idea is that in the current climate this offers the most radical alternative to a globalised economics of capital and credit flows. The latter has led to monopolies and gross inequalities. Blond suggests a political economy embedded within local communities. He even has a practical way of achieving this: turn the Post Office into a people’s bank, creating local-level finance that is to a large extent insulated from the vagaries of globalised markets.

I have been discussing over the last few days the difficulties we face in balancing a desire for simplicity in understanding a very complex world, and a need not to oversimplify and reduce the richness of that world. I suggested Gordon Brown’s Government sways between technocratic complexity (for example endless expert committees churning out long-winded reports) and reductive simplifications (such as applying Bankers’ ‘expertise’ to all policy problems). I also suggested we need to encourage individuals skilled in judgement – people with the ability to see when to simplify and when not; people who can see the salient differences and similarities across diverse and complex phenomena.

The attraction of ‘Red Toryism’ is that it offers something radical that draws on a social reality that is already in place - one with which people feel a sense of belonging and ownership. Communities already exist, as do post offices and local networks. This ‘spare capacity’ simply needs to be enhanced to (perhaps) cause a major shift in how we run our economy, whilst at the same time re-empowering citizens. (These two issues are connected: globalised capital and credit flows alienate citizens by separating their everyday lives from the functioning of the economy, and ultimately, their own future prosperity).

But here’s the sticking point. Conservatives usually appeal to certain kinds of communities and certain kinds of networks when pushing communitarianism – small-town Britain, the church, the WI, local businesses and so on. Some of this is fine. But we can’t just return to the 1950s. That is hopeless nostalgia. The problem then, is to create a kind of communitarianism that is not tied to a narrow tradition or so-called ‘silent-majority’ (which is actually a very vocal minority).

Here’s where the point about judgement comes in. Take cultural diversity. Is this an impediment to communitarianism? Not necessarily. Muslims (say) might want to invest their money in Islamic banks; Muslim-run businesses might want to borrow from such an institution. An Islamic bank in (say) Bradford is quite like a (say) banking network run by the local branch of the CBI. It is quite like it, but also different. There is plenty that the two networks have in common, and there are some differences. But there is no reason why a new communitarianism cannot span these two kinds of local networks.

What is needed is a political language for communicating the similarities and differences between the various kinds of local networks in a way that would facilitate an empowered citizenry. And that requires just the kind of skilled judgement I have been talking about.

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