How to define Phillip Blond politically

Yesterday has proved to be the day when Conservative Party managers, including Steve Hilton, turned their back on the Red Tory Phillip Blond for what they call his “progressive nonsense” (something Guido the un-chido is delighted about [h/t Richard].

On twitter this has kickstarted the conversation on where to place Blond on the political map – a task most people will agree is very difficult (unless of course you are Paul Sagar).

On 1 July this year I had the good fortune to interview Mr Blond, with my then colleague Katy, for an in-house magazine I was working on. The subject matter was how to revise the social care system now that the public sector was undergoing a fiscal tightening, and in particular whether Blond felt there was a case for public spending as a means of investing for the future. We did get sidetracked a number of times, but mainly we stayed on task.

I mentioned a spending strategy to him known as spending to save, something popularised recently in a New Economics Foundation report entitled Backing the Future – where it is mentioned that more spending and investment in children and young people could potentially save the UK £486 billion in the future. Blond replied that “As a rule public expenditure is very hard to, as it were, use revenue expenditure in the way that has a capital effect, if you see what I mean, because this is in fact capital expenditure, but in a social framework”.

Blond continued: “We haven’t yet really, in terms of the state, found a way to capitalise, if you like, or put into the capital expenditure stream, money that come, that we have to fund in an income way, so there’s always a hill or a mountain that requires financing, and that’s what in essence tends to prevent these things happening.” In keeping with Blond’s vision, to recapitalise the poor so they can enjoy asset-wealth and a long term savings culture, it is his contention that the state and it’s expenditure has little chance of having an effect on capital creation, but worse than that, in essence money that comes into being through income seldom finds itself in the capital expenditure stream. It sounds as though this is inherent to public expenditure, and since that is in conflict with Blond’s overall project, it may be the case that the future of capitalism for him leaves the state in the shadows.

One of the things that gains Blond the label “progressive” is his insistence on spreading out, and decentralising capital, in order that whole communities don’t suffer generations of poverty. Really, Blond despises the fact that wealth stays at the top, and makes no bones about saying as much. On the subject he told me that “[i]f you look at manufacturing there is no lending to manufacturing in this country, inordinate percentages of our lending goes into private residential housing stock, rather than into creating the business infrastructure for private sector growth. So the key thing would be to stop the centralisation of capital, and the state insurance function, the state has helped to centralise capital by insuring investment banking activity, and by insuring investment banking activity, what they do is lose the risk for investment, but of course capital goes to where there is the highest return, the greatest degree of security, if the government insures your activity, your speculative activity, then you’re in a win-win situation, which is what they are doing.”

The problem of the state here, for Blond, is twofold; 1) the state helps the centralisation of capital; 2) it secures dodgy speculative activity. His solution: remove the state insurance function – it is no good for private sector growth and centralises capital, thus puts up barriers to the recapitalisation of the poor.

I asked Blond whether he felt the economy could afford a spending model based on the spend now save later? Blond firmly replied: “I mean no one in the world, anyone serious, thinks you can have an economy run by the public sector. Who thinks that? Not even Karl Marx thought that. And the reason you can’t, is that the public sector itself is not a generator of wealth. It’s a maintainer of wealth, but it is a good that needs other good to come with it, and the goods to come with it, all predicated on the back of private sector growth. Unless you can have private sector growth, you can’t generate the taxes, the tax base, you won’t reduce unemployment, you can’t do anything. But you can’t finance yourself into a deeper hole and think that will deliver.”

At this stage you get the feeling that Blond doesn’t simply think the state is currently doing a bad job at harnessing private sector growth, but that the state in itself frustrates the very mechanisms the private sector was created to operate. In response to a question on whether we will ever be able to promote a spend to save model, post-recession, Blond reminds us that he is “just very doubtful of the role of the state in this country. I just don’t think it is an effective vehicle for anything really, or for anything very much. Often the state is left picking up the pieces of the destruction of civil society. The key decisive move is to have civil society to answer these problems, because civil society is a self-correcting entity, as soon as you associate you’re much healthier and much better things happen; the key task is to allow civil society take over from the state. Where a period in society where civil society and the state works, but that’s a different thing. So if you are in Denmark or Scandinavia where the state is an expression of a strong civil society, they can work much better together in a symbiosis. But we’re not in that position in this country, where in a position where the state and the market have both annihilated society, so we actually, as a precondition of an effective state, and an effective market, we need to rebuild association.”

He is obviously very romantic with regards to the state, but one is left wondering whether this symbiosis between state and market, which he speaks of here, is well considered at all. If Blond cannot see the role of the state in this country as an effective vehicle for anything, as well as slavishly clearing up the mess of the destruction of civil society, what worth for him is there in keeping state functions at all?

The state, for Blond, will only work, as he reminds me, “ on the basis on the sort of society I’m arguing for” – which is where it plays as little part in society as is possible.

Blond ends by saying “[t]he great agent of the creation of the poor is the state, and the market has been captured by oligarchs, or oligopolies and monopolies, which then follows rent-seeking behaviour, that essentially destroys the life chances of everyone else.” Blond uses unfamiliar rhetoric to many used to simple left/right divides, but essentially we can see where he is coming from; the state has been implicated in the concentration of wealth, just as much as markets have, which also favour vast riches within small elites.

The type of society Blond wants to see is one where capital is dispersed further – but in order to do this the state is a hindrance, not an example. It is no secret that Blond holds a social conservatism, in part related to his Christian world-view, in part as reaction to what he calls the social relativism of liberalism. Additionally, the state holds a romantic, symbolic place in society, but often frustrates the good society. For this reason there is an element to which he can be labelled a civic republican of sorts, but for me this doesn’t quite cut the mustard; I fear his dislike of the state’s functions goes a little further. Therefore in Blond I see a notable essence of paleolibertarianism – an amount which cannot be ignored.

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