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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan)

Doug Saunders

Painting Britain's Tories Red Add to ...

The man who sits across from me on the red leather couch speaks in a Scouse drawl usually heard among the ranks of the Labour Party, not the chiselled Oxbridge accents of the Tory elite, and he has a louche, rumpled appearance that seems more polytechnic than ruling class.

But it is when Phillip Blond speaks that his novelty is most apparent.

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"Free-market neoliberalism has created a tiny elite and turned the working class into losers with no power to control their lives - what they call the free market is actually covert capture by monopolies," he tells me, followed by: "Monopoly capitalism has atomized us into a society of lonely consumers isolated from a big, monolithic, uncaring state."

We are, he says, "living in a modern-day version of serfdom, where the working classes and even the middle classes are living in dependency to the banks."

He wants to break up the banks into hundreds of local community-based enterprises. He wants to break up the government and large enterprises into worker-owned co-operatives.

These, believe it or not, are the new ideas of Britain's Conservative Party. No, Margaret Thatcher would not approve. But Phillip Blond is not a fan of Margaret Thatcher, or of Tony Blair, or of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

David Cameron, the British Tory leader, is racing to adopt Mr. Blond's ideas, championing them in speeches, releasing policy papers calling for an "ownership state" and making promises to transform government departments into small employee-controlled co-operatives.

Mr. Blond is on a single-handed mission to resurrect the Red Tory, a familiar figure in Canadian politics but one that has virtually vanished from Britain. He tells me he was inspired by Canadian nationalist thinker George Grant, whose 1965 book Lament for a Nation bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Blond's current thinking about "broken Britain."

The Tories, who are baffled to find themselves only barely ahead of Gordon Brown's Labour Party in the polls, have seized upon Red Toryism as an ideological lifebuoy. Mr. Blond emerged from small-university obscurity last year, briefly ran something called the Progressive Conservatism Project, then launched a Red Tory think tank called ResPublica, raising $5-million from wealthy Tory donors in two weeks.

Mr. Cameron faces a problem: His party's rank-and-file members, and its backbenches, are still dominated by ardent followers of Ms. Thatcher's minimal-government, free-market thinking. But most voters are still enamoured of the huge improvements and spending increases in schools and hospitals that took place under 13 years of the Labour Party, and they are not, after the economic collapse, so fond of the unfettered market. The way to square that circle, Mr. Cameron hopes, is with Mr. Blond's ideas.

It helps that Mr. Blond is also admired by the large bloc of social conservatives who believe the country has fallen into petty-criminal, irreligious, hedonistic immorality: That, too, is part of the program of Mr. Blond, a convert from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism who writes books on Christian theology.

What makes Mr. Blond a Tory, and not simply a Red, is his belief in a certain idyll, a better past that has been defiled by the advances of modernization. While all Tories place this time before 1997, Mr. Blond believes things went wrong in 1945, when the postwar settlement produced a powerful welfare state.

This, he believes, led in a direct line to the hedonistic individualism of the late 1960s. And that, in turn, led to Margaret Thatcher, who turned that individualism into economic principle. "There is no such thing as society," she famously said, "there are individual men and women."

And the apotheosis of this crime was the governments of Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown.

"Blairism was the final synthesis of this whole position," he says. "Blairism was a completely unjust market economy allied with a bureaucratic and dysfunctional state - extreme individualism and state authoritarianism. And the fact that we've now got a bankrupt state and a broken market shows us that we have something wrong and we now need a genuine third way."

Mr. Blond wants to reverse all of that, and to undo the past 60 years of British history, in approximately the way that Czechoslovakia undid five decades of communism: By breaking up the state into small pieces, handing a pile of share certificates to each citizen and putting "local people" in charge of the remains.

It is a peculiarly British vision, of a worker-controlled Jerusalem that is also a return to a past of friendly villages and neighbourliness. There are a hundred ways to poke holes in this vision, and to doubt the likelihood of its realization, but it might not be so easy for Gordon Brown to do so.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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