Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Colour Purple

G.K. Chesterton once joked that "the business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."  When one sees billboards around the country proclaiming "Vote for change: vote Conservative", one knows that the old Right is dead and buried. Conservatism ought to mean something like keeping things the same, but now there is nothing much left anyone wants to keep. It has all been broken and messed around, and all that is left to do is change it further. That, at least, is how many in England feel when they contemplate the schools, the NHS, the army, the Church of England, and Parliament. Everyone wants change, and the only question is what sort of change and who will deliver it.

The most radical kind of change we might hope for is one that cuts deeper than both Right and Left. There is an important strand of modern thought that identifies both our main political movements as manifestations of the same phenomenon - "Liberalism". This is a
tendency to elevate freedom to the top of the list of values, and it gathered momentum after the French (and American) Revolution. Nowadays all sins seem to be against freedom. Democracy is good because it gives freedom of choice. So are supermarkets. Even paedophilia is wrong only because the will of the child is coerced or corrupted (or because the child is too young to have a will in the matter). But critics of this strand of Enlightenment thinking argue that freedom is not the supreme value; it should exist in the right relation with others. Freedom, let's say, exists for the sake of love. If any value is supreme, it is love, not freedom. And that has implications for how we understand freedom, because freedom unshackled from love is pure "will to power", and freedom separated from truth (that other neglected value) is an illusion. The critics of Liberalism say there is another kind of freedom we ought to aspire after: a qualitative, not merely quantitative, choice - the freedom to choose the good. Oh yes, the good - another value to which freedom should be subordinated.

Phillip Blond is one of these critics of Liberalism. And like all of them he provokes the panic reaction, being accused either of nostalgia (for an age before Enlightenment) or of a yearning for Fascism (because he thinks freedom is only part of the moral picture, and therefore surely he means to abolish it). An article in the Guardian that was taken from the London Review of Books (“Cameron’s Crank” by Jonathan Raban, 22 April) claimed Blond’s ideas were taken from Belloc and Chesterton, who were supposedly fans of Mussolini, and so indirectly tried to smear Cameron with Fascism. The article was venomous and unfair, not least because Blond’s analysis and prescription are based on arguments of his own, not an appeal to the authority of anyone in the tradition. They deserve to be addressed as such, and they may or may not be well argued. But it is also not the case that Chesterton, at least, was any kind of Fascist. Even in his 1930 reflections on the Rome of Mussolini and his audience with the dictator, he pinpoints the fallacy of Fascism – it brings order to the State without first bringing it to the mind; it “appeals to an appetite for authority, without clearly giving the authority for the appetite.” In other words, it subordinates truth to power.

Mr Blond is to be congratulated for injecting some real interest into the current debate. And he must be right, I feel, about one thing – that between the individual and the government there should be a well-developed civil society, beginning with families. The freedom to flourish as human beings depends more on civil society than on government, or on the market that (hand-in-glove with the state) insinuates itself as the only substitute for civil society in a world where everything has a price. I wish that we would see the resurrection of another sense of “civil” society too: a society in which issues and arguments could be debated intelligently and open-mindedly, with the courtesy and respect that Chesterton showed to his opponents in an earlier age.

Read Blond on the Red Tory tradition on the ResPublica website and here. And to join in with the current political debates you might like to try “Open Democracy”.

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