The state is ‘A Good Thing’


State market balanceBy Michael Merrick / @Michael_Merrick

Blue Labour has followed hot on the heels of Red Toryism as the latest intellectual craze that the commentariat are pretending to be sympathetic to, primarily because, they say, it is giving voice to the kind of outlook they have always secretly subscribed to but never bothered to admit. Quite why it has taken certain amongst their number so long to open their mouths and utter concern at the old zeitgeist is, I suspect, a question to which we are not likely to receive an answer. Even so, the debate is moving and, one hopes, so does the centre-ground move with it.

Now it is important to note, amidst the to-and-fro of primary colour currently shaping our political landscape, that Blue Labourites are not the same as Red Tories, even whilst both are economically to the left and socially to the right. And the chief distinction between them comes down to the very thing that both movements have had greatest success in critiquing: the role, influence and make-up of the state.

Quite why this is so shall be the focus of what follows, but for now suffice it to say simply this: post-cuts politics needs to be much more robust in making a positive case for the legitimate and necessary role of the state in creating and sustaining that very society that both traditions outwardly claim to be seeking.

As such, both Blue Reds and Red Blues should feel able to unite on the point, precisely because both movements, however they differ in detail, fundamentally require a positive vision of the state to underpin their analysis and provide a platform upon which to advance their agenda, be it Blondian distributism or Glasmanite conservative socialism. And the reason why such a case is not currently being robustly made is, I think, partly due to the success of the case that is being made.

To give a brief overview, when the Red Tory hit the scene David Cameron gobbled up his critique of market liberalism as the template through which he would detoxify his party from its Thatcherite associations. Of course, the economic crash did not help in that ambition, and the installation of George Osborne in No. 11 will always lead one to question the sincerity of Cameron’s conversion, but the important point was this: Team Cameron bought the economic argument whilst leaving Blond’s social analysis of liberalism well alone (which is why the Tory diagnosis of Broken Britain never really came with a cure).

And yet, not entirely alone. You see, Blond’s account of social liberalism, which itself included a convincing critique of the liberal authoritarian state, dovetailed rather nicely with his (socially conservative) civic communitarianism, and in so doing provided a rather handy template for those whose concern was not with the perniciousness of social liberalism as such, but with the role of the state in particular. Alas, the accusation that the Big Society vibe has provided the intellectual cover for an ideological attack on the role of the state is accurate, if not for all then certainly for all those who matter.

Blue Labour, on the other hand, has been pushing against the same door from the opposite direction, and is concentrating its effort rather more on the social argument, precisely because its economic argument was always likely to go down well (save the odd ridiculous misreading – take a bow, Billy). It is essentially a reverse process of what Blond has been ateempting with the Tories, and its success is not unrelated to the fact that its prime target is a clique and a philosophy which, many would argue, is and never has been mainstream in the Labour movement anyway. To put it in (overly) simple terms, Glasman has had to convince a party to return to its natural roots on economics and look more closely at its social doctrines (the two intertwine, though the latter in particular has included an analysis of the role of the state), whilst Blond has had to move the Conservatives on two fronts, that being the party on economics, and the leadership on social conservatism.

Which brings us back to that issue of the state, an ideal and an institution that has been picked at for its myriad cumulative deficiencies in the later-part of the twentieth-century, without currently receiving much by way of positive endorsement and/or legitimation.

For you see, it often seems there is a gaping hole where a confident Labour movement should be (and indeed, from a different angle, where a confident small ‘c’ conservative movement should be too). In surging forth with its robust analysis of the statism the Labour movement had come to embrace, drawing upon much Red Tory analysis and language in the process, Blue Labour has thus far failed to make a convincing and positive case for the state, at least in any serious and sustained manner – thereby neglecting what Anthony Painter has termed the trump card the left has to play against the apparently anti-state coalition .

And in offering an exciting vision of the reciprocal, mutualist, co-operative and associative society, and the ways in which mechanistic, technocratic and bureaucratic systems can stifle that organic flourishing of human relationships, both Red Tory and Blue Labour have neglected to seriously consider the way in which the state underpins, facilitates and enables exactly the kind of society that both would recognise as consistent with the ‘good society’ we ought to be aiming for.

Neglecting to offer this positive vision, however, will eventually prove detrimental, not only because the mood at the moment is so anti-state and therefore needs countering precisely in the name of Blue Labour/Red Tory, but also because the Tories and (in a much more refined sense) both Blond and Glasman have provided such convincing and damning accounts of statism that unless one is attentive to the risk then the baby might just find itself thrown out with the bathwater.

Let’s hope, then, that the emphasis will begin to change, and we will soon hear a little more on why these two thinkers think the state is ‘A Good Thing’, to be cultivated and ultimately defended, against both apathy and the attacks of those whose only positive word for the state is the extent to which it can deliver their own anti-state agenda.

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