Red Toryism: a lesson for the left?


Red ToryismBy Michael Merrick

The Labour Party is facing wipeout. Politically, a defeat looms every bit as significant as that inflicted upon the Conservative Party in 1997. The potential damage, however, extends well beyond the projected numbers of seats the Labour Party may come to hold post-election. More worryingly, Labour is losing the battle of ideas, not against the Conservatives, but against the people at large. In short, Labour has ceased to believe in those things that once defined it, and that still defines large swathes of those it has ceased to represent.

If there is any truth in the old rule-of-thumb that the British people are economically left wing and socially conservative, then the left nowadays is always halfway short. Of course, this has not always been the case, and were the founders of the Labour movement to be magically transported into the present day then they would no doubt be ferociously denounced as rabidly right wing. Today’s ‘modernisers’ portray their heritage as an uncomfortable aberration from a less civilised past, so fanatical are they in pursuit of what they arbitrarily term the ‘progressive’ agenda.

The unease, however, speaks of a transformation of the ideological underpinnings of the Labour movement: what is now pejoratively dismissed as ‘social conservatism’ was once authentically expressive of left-of-centre accounts of the social sphere. Emphasising communal unity and well-being over individual satisfaction, left-of-centre thinking offered strongly relational accounts of the social that sought not to enshrine the particular rights of the individual over or against society, but rather contextualised individual identity through shared bonds of kinship, community and social custom.

This is an insight explored for some time now by Phillip Blond in his Red Tory project. To crudely characterise, the post-1968 embrace of social liberalism has inculcated an atomistic individualism that, policed by an authoritarian state, undermines a genuinely social society.

Of course, such a charge is painful to the ears of the contemporary elite, who would prefer to read into communality the oppression of the individual. Things are different now, we are told: we live in an individualistic world, and this is ‘progress’. Except, for many, it really is not, and insofar as the pursuit of ‘liberty’ most often entails the denigration of precisely those values that many still hold dear, so does this mode of thought refuse to sit comfortably with large segments of the population, wise enough to see the sinister side of this particular utopia.

By destabilising those foundational joists that have for so long been the shelter of the vulnerable, reassuring the welfare-ensnared that this particular reformation is all in the pursuit of ‘liberty’, Labour really is pursuing the path of its own annihilation. To quote Blond:

“The Labour Party is being rejected by society because it has repudiated and vilified the very structure and basis of society itself.”

The culture clash is not just coming; it has already arrived, and it is causing chaos.

For those that sneeringly dismiss such charges as unreconstructed conservatism, who recoil in disgust at the lingering presence of it within what might be considered their core vote, who elect merely to turn their heads when the disastrous consequences of their cultic adoration of the ‘I’ wreaks havoc amongst the most vulnerable; all they really do is elevate their own ideological prejudices above the chorus of cries emanating from the dispossessed, and diagnose the ‘regressive’ parochialism of the barbarous lower classes as a thing to be persecuted, not understood. The vilification of the plebeians does little more than reassure those at the top of their own superiority, and harass those at the bottom into silence lest their ill-articulated yet heartfelt concerns are used as evidence to demonise and criminalise them all the more. ‘We’re all in this together’ is the slogan they would have us cling to; truth is, some of us are in it more than others, and some are not really in it at all.

Of course, for the more philosophically inclined, the liberal project is underpinned by a complex society united on the macro level through common adherence to a fixed set of overarching values. The problem remains that these values, or rather the manner in which they are understood, are overwhelmingly a manifestation of the way in which the already empowered would wish to live. For those that do not submit to the aggressive individualism of the liberal vision, who resist distorted accounts of ‘freedom’ and dare to cling to their outdated social customs that so offend the sensibilities of the liberals, there can only ever be extermination, or, to use Orwell’s words, ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’.

Whilst this continues, society will be subsumed by unrestrained individualism, whereby what is good for society can only ever be the liberty of the individual over and against society itself. Accordingly, the more provocative questions invite denunciation; does the common weal have more legitimacy than individual desire? Do the interests or beliefs of the community trump the universal ‘right’ of an individual? What should happen when the universal ‘rights’ of an individual are corrosive of social harmony?

In short, has the post-1968 embrace of hedonistic liberalism not caused the left to unwittingly surrender its ancestral heartland, and with it those insights that were historically its greatest strength, and indeed its greatest contribution, to post-industrial political culture?

The empowered elite will, of course, shriek with all the ferociousness of a threatened oligarchy that such thinking is oppressive, undemocratic, authoritarian, bigoted, regressive, and endless other desperate accusations. And well they might. But the point remains that it at least attempts to offer a more authentically left-of-centre communitarian mode of thinking, and if it offends the palette, then maybe the ‘libertarians’ ought to cross the floor.

Thus far, Red Toryism has become a lucky charm of the right; one wonders whether it might have crucial insights for the left, too.

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