The Big Society agenda of the Conservative Party in Britain is cast as a Red Tory challenge to the liberal democratic state. Why aren’t we having this public conversation in Canada?
If current political debate in Britain is any indication, the liberal democratic state may be entering a defining moment. Fundamental questions about the respective roles of the state and civil society are being seriously raised across the political spectrum. Public intellectuals on the left and the right, including sitting members of Parliament, are engaging in this debate with an understanding and respect for its philosophical and historical lineage. Canadians surveying the arid landscape of their own politics can look to this debate as evidence that “big ideas” still have force in political life. Ironically, the set of ideas at the heart of this British debate is a distinctively Canadian concept that has been all but eclipsed in this country: Red Toryism.
Red Toryism in Britain is a frontal attack on liberalism, on the grounds that the essential liberal focus on the rights-bearing individual has left no social or institutional buffer against the rise of an impersonal bureaucratic state or a rampant global capitalism, and has drained the pools of collective identity and good will. The vehicle for the assault is David Cameron’s “Big Society” agenda. Cameron’s hallmark Hugo Young lecture in November 2009 put the argument as follows:
When the welfare state was created, there was an ethos, a culture to our country — of self-improvement, of mutuality, of responsibility…But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society — and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.
The prescription, however, is not simply to shrink the state but rather to “reimagine” its role as the facilitator and catalyst of social action. In Cameron’s words, “We need to use the state to remake society.”
This set of ideas has yielded a political agenda built upon three pillars: localism, social enterprise and civic engagement. Responsibilities for the provision of services are to be devolved to local authorities, not only because they can be designed to be more responsive to local needs but also because this devolution will draw upon and develop local capabilities and foster attitudes of social responsibility. Social enterprises such as those based on cooperative and employee ownership are to be encouraged through regulatory changes and consultative advice — again, to call forth and channel latent pools of capability, talent and ingenuity. Finally, for similar reasons and to reknit the social fabric, volunteerism is to be encouraged. To make all of this possible, new practices of accountability and transparency are essential to ensuring that this agenda is democratically implemented.
One of the leading advocates of the Big Society, Phillip the author of the influential 2008 book Red Tory and a key adviser to Cameron. For Blond, the agenda is to “resurrect the communal and restore the social” through the “Tory logic of family, locality and civil and voluntary society.” Jesse Norman, an academic, Conservative MP and author of Compassionate Conservatism, Compassionate Economics, and the Big Society, emphasizes the importance of the social institutions that fill the gap in the liberal view of “the two-way opposition of state vs. individual.” Both argue passionately that big government and big bureaucracies have failed to deliver security and have eroded the capacity of social institutions to deliver public goods.
But if Blond and Norman deplore the Big State they are equally critical of Big Capitalism. The liberal market economy allowed power and wealth to become so concentrated as to threaten the entire edifice with financial collapse, and to load the costs of preventing that collapse unfairly on the most vulnerable.
This is a compelling set of ideas, with potential appeal across the ideological spectrum. Red Toryism resonates strongly with the “small is beautiful” critique of global capitalism by the 1970s British intellectual of the left E.F. Schumacher, whose classic book of that title has reportedly been read sympathetically within Cameron’s circle. And a rival “Blue Labour” response has sprung up in Britain, as further discussed below.
George Grant must be stirring in his grave. These are just the ideas that informed his 1965 book Lament for a Nation, which decried the fraying of the bonds of nation and community in Canada in the face of the technological imperative of a global market and the embrace of a hegemonic American liberalism. Grant was a leading example of what University of Toronto political scientist Gad Horowitz in a classic 1966 analysis would call the “Red Tory” (although Grant himself reportedly disavowed the label). Horowitz used the term to describe a uniquely Canadian blend of conservatism and socialism. Both of these bodies of political thought, he argued, have an “organic” conception of society that contrasts sharply with the individualistic ethos of liberalism. While their American counterparts dramatically rejected the Toryism of Britain in a revolution based on liberal ideas of individual rights, the Europeans (both English and French) who settled in Canada in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries retained a “Tory touch” harkening back (in the case of French Canadians) to feudal times. When social democratic thought arose in Canada in opposition to the concentrations of power that both conservative and liberal politics and economics made possible, it could resonate with much older beliefs — that all members of society are not independent individuals, but are rather linked together through shared history and common endeavour. A Eugene Forsey while a social democrat and member of the CCF could strongly defend the institutions of the monarchy and established parliamentary tradition; and an R.B. Bennett and (later) Robert Stanfield and Bill Davis could be public institution builders, proposing and creating Crown corporations and social programs as instruments of common goals and guarantees of mutual obligations.
Red Tories, however, are an endangered species in Canada. If we think of Red Tories now, we too often refer simply to Conservatives “left” of the norm for their party or, less often, Liberals “right” of the norm for theirs. The Progressive Conservative Party that encapsulated the concept in its very name and served as the home for most Red Tories has disappeared from the federal scene.
Does the fate of Red Toryism in Canada provide a cautionary tale for those in Britain who are now embracing the label? The answer to that question, and more importantly the resolution of the contest over the role of the state in Britain, Canada and elsewhere, will depend upon how at least six challenges are addressed.
The elitist challenge: The Tory notion of a society of individuals linked by mutual obligations not only stands in contrast to a liberal notion of independent individuals with inalienable rights — it also embodies its own fundamental tension between elitism and communitarianism. Toryism derives from a society in which individuals were linked by membership in institutions with established traditions and prescribed positions. These institutions, like the monarchy and the church, were bound together by an overarching set of values, to which all members of society were to subscribe. Each individual had a place, and these places were not the same. This is inherently an elitist world, and it is a world that fits ill with a liberal world of equal individuals with rights of free association and expression. Clifford Orwin has elsewhere summed up succinctly the tension between these two worlds: one is a world of “unattached equals” and the other a world of “attached unequals.”
This challenge is particularly thorny in Britain, with a history of landed aristocracy and gentry in which localism meant decision-making by local elites. But it is a challenge that must be met in any project of turning decision-making authority over to bodies in civil society. Red Toryism has no theory of accountability other than that embedded in established institutions. If vibrant self-forming groups and institutions are to take over much more of the collective enterprise, such accountability mechanisms will have to be developed.
The austerity challenge: The Big Society might be the right idea at the wrong time — a time at which governments are focused on cutting budgets to reduce the deficits and debt incurred to combat a synchronous global recession. It is one thing to laud the role of social groups and institutions that arise spontaneously to meet a perceived need, and another thing entirely to expect such groups to emerge in a context in which the state is actively retreating from areas that it has occupied. In the latter context, at least two factors militate against success. First, social groups will be entering contested terrain: civil servants threatened with displacement (unless they form “social enterprises” to compete for service contracts) cannot be expected to go gently. Second, the public funding on which many social organizations rely for capacity building is likely to be diminished or unavailable — a stark reality that caused one of the “Big Society” flagship communities in the UK, Liverpool, to decline the honour.
The nationalist challenge: Red Toryism and the Big Society agenda place great weight on subscription to a common core of values, and a common national identity. In Canada, this led Grant to “lament” the disappearance of the idea of Canada. In Britain, this has meant that the Big Society is an English project, with little appeal in the rest of the United Kingdom — the “Celtic fringe.” It also counterposes this stream of thought to a “multiculturalist” agenda, which Blond and other advocates have seen as implying a relativistic attitude to values that dissolves the glue binding society as a whole. They take seriously the growing political phenomenon across Europe of unease at levels of immigration. If they are to avoid the extremes of that unease, however, they will need to wrestle seriously, as “cosmopolitan liberals” like Canadians Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka have done, with finding a way to reconcile common membership in society with respect for group difference.
The market challenge: An embrace of civil society cannot exclude embracing one of its major component parts: the market. As Hugh Segal has argued in his new book, The Right Balance, Canadian
Red Tories have long recognized the potential of the market, while seeking to curb and harness it as necessary in the collective interest. Their British counterparts have focused their attacks on global capitalism, particularly global financial markets, while arguing for a broad distribution of the ownership of capital. But there is deep suspicion on the left that the Big Society agenda is simply to usher in the market in civil society clothing. A number of the reforms introduced by the Conservative/ Liberal-Democrat coalition (to the growing concern of the junior partner) have reinforced this view. Proposed reforms in health care would open up competition for public contracts to “any willing provider” across the full range of health care services, and post-secondary education is increasingly being opened up to for-profit providers.
Fostering and tapping the potential of civil society for common purpose is an old and worthy idea. Reinterpreting it, in tension with the ideals, principles and practices of modern liberal democracy and in the context of global capitalism, is one of the great political challenges of our times. British political parties are actively engaged in this debate — the sign of a healthy polity, and one which Canadians can envy.
The global challenge: Can the thoroughgoing nationalism and localism of the Red Tory prescriptions be sustained in an interdependent global political economy? George Grant’s “lament,” after all, was precisely because he believed that the answer was no. In Britain’s open economy and in the European context, the mutuals, social enterprises and cooperatives promoted by the British Red Tories can flourish only, and ironically, under the umbrella of state patronage and protection. The Red Tories have yet to frontally address this fundamental challenge to the viability of their agenda.
The challenge to the state: The justification for the Big Society agenda lies in a trenchant attack on the state as having usurped functions better performed by social groups and institutions. But if this attack is too sweeping, it risks undermining the platform on which a reconstruction of the role of the state can be built. The Canadian Red Tory tradition has much to offer here. More than the current British Red Tories, Bennett, Stanfield, Davis and others saw a strong role for the state as the builder and guarantor of public institutions. But the very marginalization of Red Tories in Canada bespeaks the difficulties of making the case in the current context. This case must made in more than functionalist terms if it is to engage with the moral force of the turn to civil society: it must present an argument as to when the state is the best “embodiment of collective endeavour,” as Polly Toynbee puts it (see below).
The broad political attractiveness of an appeal to the potential of civil society could not be better demonstrated than by the rise of a “Blue Labour” faction with its own resident public intellectuals. Two of its leading figures, Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford, edited a set of essays in 2008 (Is the Future Conservative?) intended to engage with what they described as the “serious attempt to define a new communitarian politics of the right” by Blond (whose essay “Red Tory” is included in their collection) and others. Labour, they argue, needs to “reassert its own social and ethical values and find its own alternatives to neoliberalism.” A year later, Maurice Glasman, an academic and community organizer, gave this project its “Blue Labour” banner.
In several important respects there is precious little difference between Red Toryism and the Blue Labour. They share intellectual touchstones (notably Karl Polanyi’s critique of capitalism in his Great Transformation), and they share a diagnosis of what went wrong in political thinking on the right and the left in the 20th century. At the beginning of that century, political thought in each of the Conservative and Labour parties was a rich mix, with multiple ingredients and internal tensions. Over the course of the century, each became much more distilled: Labour abandoned its roots in social movements and labour organizing and turned, with Fabianism, to the state as the vehicle for attaining collective objectives; the Conservatives left behind the “One Nation” redistributionism of Disraeli and Macmillan for a neoliberal embrace of the market.
Their prescriptions, to a point, are similar as well. Sounding remarkably Red Tory-ish, Glassman describes Blue Labour as “a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.” Cruddas and Rutherford offer a critique of the Labour years in government in a recent Progress online essay that bemoans the loss of common values. “For all the good Labour did in government,” they argue, “it presided over the leaching away of the common meanings that bind the English in society. It did not build a common good which is the basis of an ethical life.” They echo the localism of the Red Tories, arguing that “in the last decades, [Labour] stopped valuing settled ways of life. It did not speak about an identification and pleasure in local place and belonging.”
Nonetheless, Blue Labour seeks to position itself in distinction to the Red Tories to respond to the challenges I outlined above. In contrast to the Tories’ elitist roots, Labour can point to its worker-organization heritage to claim that “the [Labour] struggle for liberty was a struggle for democracy, not for paternalism and an organic society where each knew his place,” as Cruddas and Rutherford do. The perceptions that haunt the Big Society as a stalking horse for cuts to state programs and the favouring of commerce are less credible in the case of the party of the left (even after the New Labour years).
Whether or not it can make these points of difference stick, Blue Labour has been no more successful than Red Toryism in confronting the challenges of cosmopolitanism and globalism and the need to build a positive case for the state. To do so, both Red Tories and Blue Labourites will have to confront the tensions embodied in the very labels they carry — the yearning for community, yet the distrust of the only overarching authority we have to govern collective endeavour: the state.
Blue Labour so far holds nowhere near the sway within the Labour Party that Red Tories enjoy among the Conservatives. Many Labourites view Blue Labour as an abandonment of the defence of “the public realm [as] a precious, civilising embodiment of our best collective endeavours” (Polly Toynbee) just at the moment when it is most needed. And there is little in Blue Labour to attract, and much to threaten, the established union base of the party and its support in the “Celtic fringe.”
Red Tories have their own political challenges, in part within the neoliberal wing of the Conservative Party, but also with the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. One of the defining tenets of the Liberal Democrats — an emphasis on localism — is shared ground with Red Toryism. But another tenet — the emphasis on individual rights and civil liberties — is more contested. The Liberal Democratic Party itself, a marriage between centre-right small-state liberalism and centre-left social liberalism, is wrestling with internal tensions as well. The small-state “Orange Book” wing of the party (so named for its manifesto of 2004), which includes the leader, Nick Clegg, is now ascendant; but social liberals within the party are restive and deeply suspicious of the coalition project with the Conservatives, and see Labour, especially in its blue hue, as more congenial partners. The growing influence of the centre-left insurgents within the Liberal Democrats was obvious in the passage of unanimous resolutions at the spring 2011 conference insisting on amendments to the coalition’s flagship National Health Service reform legislation to temper its market-oriented elements and to strengthen provisions for local democracy.
Fostering and tapping the potential of civil society for common purpose is an old and worthy idea. Reinterpreting it, in tension with the ideals, principles and practices of modern liberal democracy and in the context of global capitalism, is one of the great political challenges of our times. British political parties are actively engaged in this debate — the sign of a healthy polity, and one that Canadians can envy.
But no amount of debate can in fact resolve these tensions. They need to be worked out pragmatically, case by policy case. This is a process with which Canadians are familiar. The people who built our political institutions (parliaments, courts, parties, bureaucracies) were drawn by competing pressures — English and French loyalties, British ties and American linkages, regional differences and distances. So they built competing (liberal/conservative, centralist/decentralist) principles into those institutions — in effect they “institutionalized ambivalence,” as I argued in a book of that title almost 20 years ago. Where else but Canada does one find a “notwithstanding clause” in the Constitution, allowing Parliament to over-ride individual rights for up to five years, effectively providing that any government that does so will have to face the electorate in order to continue the override. Where else does one (still, in some provinces) find a “Progressive Conservative” Party, as in Ontario and Alberta? Indeed, until the term was recently embraced in Britain, where else could one find a “Red Tory”?
The pragmatic work of resolving these tensions, in Canada as elsewhere, was a matter for elites, in society and in the state, in localities and in central institutions. But elites are no longer the only legitimate arbiters of social and political conflict. To whom else will this work fall? We can point, optimistically, to the surge of social entrepreneurship that is taking place in the UK, championed by organizations such as the Young Foundation and the Innovation Unit. In Canada, signs that a Big Society (whether or not it carries that label) is ripe include the Greater Toronto Area CivicAction Alliance, the recent Task Force on Social Finance, and the commitment to the social economy in Quebec. But without a broad public conversation these will remain islands of civic engagement in a general slough of public disaffection from the political process. Kudos to the Brits for having this conversation. Let it be renewed in Canada.