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Nothing daunted, Blond then promptly set about raising funds for his own think-tank on the strength of his Prospect article and not much else besides the patronage of the Tory leader. ResPublica, as the new outfit styles itself, was launched last month, again in the presence of the Conservative leader and his entourage. There is no doubt about Blond's debt to Cameron. Much more important is: how much does Cameron owe to Blond? On the strength of the Big Society speech, the answer is: quite a lot. Blond is quoted thus: "The state...has dispossessed the people and amassed all power to itself...This centralisation of power has made people passive when they should be active and cynical when they should be idealistic. This attitude only makes things worse-the more people think they can't make a difference, the more they opt out from society." This is a key part of the Cameronian critique of big government. Cameron believes that moral values such as duty and responsibility have been replaced by "the synthetic bonds of the state-regulation and bureaucracy". I agree. However, the Cameronian critique rejects the idea that "state retrenchment" will bring about moral regeneration at the bottom of society. 

What Cameron seems to like about Red Toryism is threefold. First, he offers a moral critique of the welfare state which appears to echo Iain Duncan Smith's distinctively Christian conservatism, although in many ways Blond's ideas have more in common with various other traditions — corporatist, communitarian, even socialist — that blame "neo-liberalism" for the decline of social solidarity. That is a prejudice that Mr Duncan Smith, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, would repudiate. Second, Blond's dogmatic rejection of individualism is dressed up in the vocabulary of radical orthodox theology, an Anglican movement that counts Rowan Williams among its adherents. To a great extent, however, he is recycling the ideas of the American communitarian movement, founded by Amitai Etzioni, which were taken up for a time by the Clintons and then re-emerged in a new form, the "faith-based" initiatives of George W. Bush. Third, Blond identifies his main enemy as "monopoly capitalism", drawing on popular fear and loathing of large corporations from Goldman Sachs to Tesco. This part of Red Toryism echoes the Distributist movement that flourished between the wars and attracted mainly Catholic intellectuals such as Belloc, Chesterton and E. F. Schumacher. Blond's hostility to big business fits in with Eric von Hippel's key idea, "user innovation", based on the notion that customers are better than corporations at adapting products to their needs. 

So far, the Left's alarm at Cameron's speech has not been matched on the Right. It has been praised by influential columnists such as Janet Daley of the Telegraph and Brian Appleyard of the Sunday Times. Yet, in some ways, the Right has more to worry about. The vision of a Big Society set out in this speech goes far beyond Burke's "little platoons" or the "One Nation" Tories who hark back to Disraeli. Indeed, it is directly opposed to the ideas of Oakeshott, whom Mr Cameron also cites, but who warned against using the state to transform society into an "enterprise association", subordinating the interests of its individual members to some higher purpose. The Big Society proposed here is just such an enterprise association. It amounts to nothing less than a Cameron revolution, doubtless every bit as profound in its impact as, a generation ago, the so-called Thatcher revolution, but utterly different in its aims and methods. Under Cameron, Conservative parliamentary candidates are now expected to undertake "social action projects" in their constituencies, and already 150 such projects are up and running. The putative Cameron revolution sounds as though it is modelled much more closely on Barack Obama's "Change" agenda, with its mass mobilisation by ideologically motivated community organisers. The Big Society, Cameron tells us, will be "remade" by the state, which will "stimulate social action". Under the benign tutelage of Cameronian "social entrepreneurs" and "community activists", the British would be re-educated to become a nation of model citizens.

Many of the ideas and the vocabulary are on loan from America — but from the arsenal of Democratic politics. The Cameron slogan "Big Society" bears a striking similarity to President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programme of the 1960s. This would set any American conservative's alarm bells ringing, because that programme was the source of so many social problems of the present-day US, from the dissolution of the black American family into an underclass dependent on welfare and affirmative action, to a cripplingly costly "War on Poverty" that was no more winnable than the war on the Vietcong. Like the New Deal on which it was modelled, the Great Society moved beyond necessary reforms, such as the civil rights legislation, to become the driving force behind the rise of big government. The Great Society's legacy has been subjected to devastating criticism from some of the most brilliant minds in America, from Irving Kristol and Charles Murray to Thomas Sowell. But none of these writers is cited in Cameron's Hugo Young Lecture, and there is every indication that he has closed his mind to this neoconservative school of thought, for no better reason than that "neocons" have been cast into outer darkness in the age of Obama. Yet the Big Society runs exactly the same risk as the Great Society: of mutating into the disease of which it claims to be the cure. 

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James
March 29th, 2010
2:03 PM
The article refers to Cameron having to make his mind up over the "radical egalitarians" who have succeeded in closing down the Catholic adoption agencies. He does not. He has already made his mind up. While Blair was dithering over whether to allow Catholic Adoption agencies an exemption, Cameron announced he would be voting against any exemptins as the principle of gays being allowed to adopt was right and no-one should be exempt.

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