I seem to be in that Friday night crystal window of thought between Gin & Tonic #3 and Gin & Tonic #4 so thought it just the time to have a root through the giant brain of Philip Blond, “high priest” of the so-called Red Toryism, who was profiled in the New Statesman yesterday.
I have been meaning to write about him for some time because he’s a fellow medievalist, and there’s nothing that causes me to cast off political allegiance so quickly as a jolly good chat about fourteenth-century constitutional change.
Blond shares my belief (and that of the famed Idler, Tom Hodgkinson) that medievalism is a surprisingly useful body of knowledge to bring to bear on the modern world. And its appeal is not limited to any one party or direction. Consider the ten medieval values (with my notation) outlined by Hodgkinson:
ANTI-CAPITALIST: Lending at interest, or usury, is at the basis of the capitalist system. And usury was quite specifically proscribed by medieval ethics… Very much the mood of the moment, as Tom pointed out again in the wake of the bank crisis.
ANTI-WORK: According to historian Jacques Le Goff, the medievals were opposed to hard work, because, he says, to put in long hours displayed a lack of faith in Providence. Theologically, medieval Catholicism was closer to an almost Taoist Oriental fatalism than today’s Protestant culture. And hard work might give you an unfair advantage over your brothers. Political movements do not lend themselves to fatalism for obvious reasons, but there is something here that smacks of the “equality of outcome” beloved of the left.
ANTI-COMPETITIVE: Craftsmen organised themselves into a system of Guilds. Guild members mutually agreed to keep quality high and prices uncompetitive. They instituted the notion of a “just and fixed price” for their wares… Classic leftist protectionism.
ECO-FRIENDLY: In the era before electricity, coal, gas or nuclear power, the medievals heated themselves from sustainable sources: ie, wood. They used water and wind power to grind corn. The UK was covered in eco-friendly windmills. All vegetable production was necessarily organic, and everyone “shopped local”… Liberal localism and environmentalism.
SELF-SUFFICIENT: Even the meanest medieval peasant grew vegetables and herbs and kept pigs and chickens. And the giant yeoman class became very prosperous. Chaucer wrote of his Franklin: “It snowed in his house of mete and drynke.” Again, liberal localism.
HOSPITABLE: Just as indigenous people today would share their last crust with you, so the medievals emphasised the importance of good hospitality. The monasteries would take in wandering men and give them beer, bread and bacon, and indeed, the (later) problem of homeless, in the Elizabethan age, was a direct result of the destruction of the monasteries. A touch of Tory paternalism here, anti-welfare state.
CHARITABLE: In the days before charity had become just another institutional mega-business, it really did begin at home. The importance of charity was constantly insisted upon and there were plenty of wandering beggars and other mendicants who were ready to receive your alms. There was no disgrace attached to poverty: in fact, it was a state to be celebrated, because the apostles were poor. We had the example of St Francis of Assisi who became voluntarily poor. As above, plus true liberal individualism in the co-existence of the two ideals of wealth and poverty.
PARTY-LOVING: The medieval calendar was absolutely studded with feast days and festivals. Of course, we all celebrate Christmas now, but Christmas then was celebrated for 12 days, during which no one was allowed to work. Every three or four weeks there was some excuse for a party. May Day was for having sex and every three of four weeks there was a long break. Liberal permissive social values and communitarianism.
CHIVALROUS: It was the medieval knights and specifically the great Troubadours of Southern France who invented the custom of courtly love. Chivalry, respect and courtesy towards women was constantly insisted upon, and there were great female patrons of these poets, such as, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Good manners were important. Tory social values.
NEIGHBOURLY: Christ had conceived of the world as a “brotherhood of man” and civility to your neighbour was paramount. This is because the medievals had a sense of collective responsibility: we are all in this together, so your well-being and my well-being are one and the same thing. Liberal localism and communitarianism.
Blond, of course, prefers the Tory and some of the liberal elements as his medieval building blocks. But he offers an extra insight which I think is spot on: the post-medieval state centralisation project. I’ve discussed this before myself. Blond:
[Oliver] Letwin led the way by giving a historical account of how bureaucracy first arose through the creation of the state by the monarch, who, in wishing to assert and codify his control over the realm, inaugurated a vast centralised system of state control to regulate and direct his subjects. He then concluded that this has led to its modern correlate: a managerial and bureaucratic state wholly unresponsive to its citizens and indifferent to their needs.
… a medieval network of a predominantly horizontal communal and social order, exemplified by the church but also including guilds and agrarian communities organised around differential property relationships, was destroyed by the new vertical “secular monarchs”. From the 14th century on, they asserted their power and corrupted a pre-existing highly plural and reciprocal community with demands for top-down allegiance, authority and control.
The only point I’d make here is that he and Letwin are pegging the change too early – the kind of centralist “vertical monarchy” he’s talking about only really took off with the Tudors a hundred years later.
He goes on to say that it is the task of the Tories to return to the bottom-up and pluralistic medieval model in a “post-bureaucratic age”. A lot of liberals will find resonance in that, and not just when the state is under discussion. Looking back over the eighteen-month history of the People’s Republic, I find a pattern of frustration with big systems that affect to serve all and end up serving no-one in both the state and private sectors, and an inclination to localism, efficiency and self-organisation. It’s my belief that a simpler and more individually tailored way of life would bring greater economic and social benefits than all the monolithic systems ever could that makes me a liberal. There can be little better training for the liberal life than a solid grounding in medieval history.
So what on earth, I asked a fellow who has chatted with Blond, is the difference between Red Toryism and liberalism? All this business about localism, autonomy and community sounds dashed familiar. “I think he’s moderately socially conservative,” was the reply, “He finds liberalism too permissive – he thinks that there are virtues of community which should occasionally cause us to subvert our individualism to the common good”
Thus at the end of the same piece:
the real escape from bureaucracy occurs when communities are formed that reconstitute traditions across time and place such that all relationships within that community become practised and no formal account of their nature and fulfilment is required.
Instead actions and behaviour are the subject of unconscious agreement and completion. So conceived, an ancient conservative communitarianism can be married to a hyper-modern network of trade and exchange to the mutual benefit of all.
Yup, pure social conservatism. The NS characterises Blond’s critique of liberalism like this:
liberal autonomy entails the repudiation of society, and no vision of the common good can be derived from liberal principles. The atomised dystopia of 21st-century Britain, the “broken society” overseen by a highly centralised bureaucratic state, turns out to have been the historic bequest of Locke and Mill.
Liberals are, in Blond’s view “fatally indifferent” to social obligations of the sort that the Tory tradition values. These social obligations, to his mind, are the only effective building blocks of society. Liberalism, far from being a prerequisite for successful communitarianism, is in fact damaging to it.
First, the case for the defence. Liberalism is a prerequisite for the communitarian future because only pure liberalism positively requires that power be handed back to communities, and only pure liberalism provides that individuals have the inborn and inalienable right to self-organise. Tory paternalism does not, Labour centralism certainly does not. That much, I think, is very supportable.
Moreover, most liberals would be extremely surprised to learn that they “repudiate” society. Implicit in Blond’s take on liberalism is his belief that “society” consists solely in traditional relationships. Now, unless history is static, that’s seems to me to be a belief with no meaning. One age’s traditional relationships are another age’s dangerous social innovation. But here’s a shock. In another sense I agree with Blond. There are, indeed, times when individualism needs to be subverted for the common good.
There is a critical caveat, however – it’s simply not necessary for either legislation or artificial cultural pressure to force individuals to do this. Because we do it all by ourselves. The fact that social obligations are long-standing effective societal bonds should alone tell Blond that. Human beings are, on average, naturally good at social conservatism. They literally self-select for it. I’m an abberation (and so, in other senses, is Blond) – but we’re here because society can bear the cost of abberations; they’re worth it for the innovation they bring.
Still, no permissive liberal should be in any doubt about this: if the most extreme gun-toting libertarians took over the world tomorrow and set everybody “free”, a sizeable chunk of the population would instantly organise itself into socially conservative, strictly regulated communes.
It’s the liberal’s job to let them get on with that. It’s not the liberal’s job to impose their own permissiveness on others any more than it’s the social conservative’s job to impose their conservatism. Either would interfere with a perfectly natural and effective permissive/conservative balancing act that has kept human society from self-destructing in too regular and wanton a manner for thousands of years. Social liberalism does not preclude social conservatism.
The social conservatism that Blond sees as so central to his thesis is, in fact, a bolt-on, just as permissiveness would be another sort of bolt-on. A true localist liberal must be prepared to countenance both sorts of society, if both can prove their worth by surviving.
In short, what Blond has to say is eighty per cent a liberalist and localist creed, not undermined in its essentials by the twenty per cent that is influenced by social conservatism. And what Cameron chickens out of implementing, we can chew on for ourselves. I am looking forward to the book.