David Cameron’s newly-crowned ‘Philosopher-King’ Phillip Blond is ignorant of history, or economics and of his co-operatives - and he’s a lot like Mrs Thatcher.
The crowning of David Cameron’s ‘Philosopher-King’ Phillip Blond yesterday appears to have caused something of a media frenzy in this morning’s papers.
Yet for members of the Co-operative Movement, who remember Mr Cameron’s last headline-chasing commitment to associationalism through the launch of the Conservative Co-operative Movement (CCM), it seems unlikely that Mr Blond’s novel ideas will get much traction beyond serving their cynical purpose of political triangulation.
Set up more than two years ago as ‘a resource for Conservative activists and local community groups of all kinds, wanting to set up their own co-ops to take over the management of local public services’, the CCM appears to have done nothing since – failing to create, or even attempt to create, a single co-operative since its launch, other than itself.
Yet what is perhaps more invidious about Mr Blond’s contribution yesterday, is the way a false version of Britain’s history is created to fit in with Mr Blond’s desire to further progressive goals through traditional Conservative means.
For Mr Blond, the very moment celebrated by the Labour Party as a high point of collective action, the foundation of the Welfare State, was actually what sowed the seeds of its destruction.
The great 19th-Century mutual communities blessed by Conservative associationalists such as Richard Oastler and Benjamin Disraeli were destroyed as a ‘supplicant citizenry’ became dependent on the state rather than collective institutions such as trade unions, co-operatives and other mutual societies.
It is quite clear that Mr Blond’s skills lie more in self-publicity and philosophical utterings rather than history. The progressive Conservative tradition that he lays claim to was not a movement of radical associationalists that built the great working class traditions of mutualism and co-operation, but traditional Conservative paternalists.
Yes they believed in a duty for the wealthy, privileged and powerful – but also believed in a vision of society that was authoritarian and hierarchical. The mutualism that they spoke of was between the powerful and powerless. In exchange for the dutiful attention of the rich, the poor were expected to be conscientious servants – prompt, polite and deferential.
Given the number of old Etonians on the Conservative front bench we can hardly be surprised that these values have found such favour with Team Cameron.
The very idea that the creation of the Welfare State weakened the civic bonds of working class collectivism is another example of Mr Blond’s ‘paint by numbers’ approach to history: the weakening of collective institutions that he decries happened not in the 1950s but the 1980s and 1990s, as result of the mass deindustrialisation that occurred under Mrs Thatcher and her onslaught on traditional working class institutions.
It was Conservative ‘modernising’ legislation that resulted in the disappearance of two thirds of the building society movement, their economic policy that brought the decline of the trade union movement from 80 per cent to 30 per cent of the workforce and their abolition of the Co-operative Development Agency that resulted in a 20-year deceleration in the creation of new mutuals.
State action didn’t destroy mutual institutions within society, rather, the damage was done by its very absence.
Which takes us to the future direction of policy. Philosophically, Mr Blond would appear to be a fellow traveller with the co-operative and mutual movements in his call for ‘The Associative Society’ – yet the means through which he seeks to achieve this end simply does not match the reality of how our economy and society operates.
His vision of our economy and society is ‘a capitalism based on trust’ where the withdrawal of the state creates a ‘moral market’ that ‘does not require external regulation’ – yet this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how markets work.
Markets are not anarchic, atomistic things but rather elaborate social mechanisms that need to be well constructed and carefully maintained. The experience of the last 12 years, in which we have seen the creation of new mutuals with more than 1.5 million members, owe much to state action and a supportive state environment, not its withdrawal. While it is true that governments cannot create social movements, they are capable of providing conditions and resources that either allow them to thrive or die.
For all his ‘Red Tory’ pretensions, it appears that the ‘Philosopher-King’ has much more common in Mrs Thatcher than he would have us believe.
Our guest writer is Robbie Erbmann, policy officer at The Co-operative Party
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