Blond has gone from dossing on an East End bean bag to host and chef de band with senior ministers. Isn't this is a man who really knows something about how to increase social mobility?
A LOT OF policy or research unit email newsletters arrive in my inbox but the one that I always open because I know there is invariably going to be something provocative and surprising is the ResPublica newsletter, the radical political think-tank run by Philip Blond which has influenced many of the best ideas at the intellectual roots of David Cameron's 'Big Society'. It's worth signing up for.
Not the least because ResPublica has just been listed as one of the Top 20 new think tanks in the world in the most recent edition of the University of Pennsylvania's 2010 Global Go To Think Tank Rankings. This report is regarded by policy makers and opinion formers as the intellectual bible as to the most influential public policy research institutes in the world, based on a worldwide survey of 1,500 academics, journalists, policy wonks and opinion-formers from around the world. Since almost 7,000 think tanks from around 120 countries were ranked and rated, for Philip Blond's ResPublica to feature so highly on the chart is a notable achievement.
Philip will be participating in a Spear's debate on the rise of the new wealthy class of global elite, and whether this is good or bad for society, at the How The Light Gets In philosophy festival at Hay over the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May.
Philip is a complex and bruising political and media provocateur in the tradition of Burke, Hilaire Belloc (a fellow Anglo-Catholic intellectual), and Disraeli. He regularly hosts policy discussion members' dinners in the bunker-like Disraeli Room of the Carlton Club where the club's wine flows as fast as the quick-fire progressive debate and questions with ministers and policy makers. That Blond uses the elegant private rooms of the Carlton Club – a bastion of Tory exclusivity and tradition in the heart of St James's – as a preferred venue for debating his highly progressive ideas about how to change society, reveals quite a bit about Blond, whose 2010 book Red Tory was a personal manifesto for how to 'fix society', written in a firebrand style that is an intoxicating mix of Hazlitt and Wyndham Lewis.
There seems a spiritual fire burning somewhere deep inside him, which not even the well cut suits, the media oxygen can put out
In the book, he argues there has been 'a wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief' which has resulted in an 'increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family break-up, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork, longer and longer working hours, children who have no parents… seemingly immovable poverty, the permanence of inequality, teenagers with knives, teenagers being knifed, the decline of politeness, aggressive youths, the erosion of our civil liberties and the increase of obsessive surveillance, public authoritarianism, private libertarianism, general pointlessness, political cynicism and a pervading lack of daily joy'.
BUT BLOND IS no why-oh-why pessimist himself. Whenever I've met him, or had lunch with him, he has always been very much the opposite of the earnest, sartorially joyless, collarless, M&S Autograph Collection, rubber-soled social warrior of the David Miliband or Ed Balls school of intellectual combat. Like Disraeli, who favoured bright silk waistcoats, there is something about Blond with his hand-stitched Prince of Wales cut collars, woven silk ties and conservative suits (Philip would feature higher than the Top 20 on any Best Dressed List of international cognescenti today) that hints that the sartorial joy also works as a form of armour to hide the deepness and almost revolutionary force of his ambition and intellect – and despair? – and, occasionally, also act as a decoy away from some of his more bludgeoning bursts of Radical Orthodoxy.
There seems a spiritual fire burning somewhere deep inside him, which not even the well cut suits, the media oxygen of the endless boxing rounds of live TV and radio appearances on Newsnight or Any Questions, or lofty and important debates – such as being invited to address The Nuffield Trust's third annual Health Strategy Summit this month where he will set out his proposed reforms for the NHS – can put out as he rolls up his double-cuff sleeves and moves onto the next subject for intellectual chastisement, blogging, TV debate, (highly paid) keynote speech, and change. Blond style.
Blond is essentially a Tory optimist of the 19th century whose bold intellectual zeal and progressive instincts are founded on a radical community-based traditionalist conservatism that rallies against both state, consumer capitalism gone rampant and an irresponsible and reckless market monopoly. After coming to international attention with a Prospect cover article on his Red Tory agenda, his thinking is now very much at the cutting edge of the Big Society debate.
He is an ardent advocate of allowing individuals the right to personal choice and responsibility over all forms of manacling by the Daddy state, and, above all sees Britain as a society that can be fixed so long as society starts embracing the 'common good' rather than saturnine capitalist market forces which have brought only despair and unhappiness to the majority, including the wealthy, as nobody has any conception of 'worth', or self-worth today, either as an individual or as a nation.
THIS IS ALSO a theme that Spear's will also be discussing at the How the Light Gets in philosophy festival when I talk on stage with William Nicholson, author of Shadowlands, co-writer of Oscar-nominated Gladiator and also author of the recent play Crash, about the effect this worshipping over the last twenty years of the cult of money has had on society. Increasingly this has created a must-have generation of property obsessed, Honda-jeep-driving, plasma TV-loving, bonus-seeking cultural and consumerist nihilists with little or no civic spirit who have little idea or notion how to relate to themselves any more, let alone their place in society. Nor any notion of such a thing as 'the common good' that can make society a better place for all, whether a Rich Lister or a high street bank clerk.
But the intellectual landscape in Britain, which is so bereft of 'thinkers', academics and philosophers who aren't afraid (relish in Blond's case) to step into the muddy bear pit of media debate, badly needs such individuals, especially those who are just as happy to lecture on the NHS as give a lecture to the Association of British Orchestras on the uplifting joys of classical music as a 'cultural driver' (not sure I like that phrase) of the Big Society, alerting orchestras to what they can do to remain both culturally relevant and properly funded in the new cash-starved cultural era.
Doesn't that say that this is a man who really knows something about how to increase social mobility and real change in society today?
He argued – rightly, I think – that generating mainstream involvement in classical music is an essential first step in driving large scale philanthropy that is so critical to ensuring the economic viability of the performing classical music world other arts organisations. He then added that this high cultural renewal could be achieved by 'securing mass participation through new delivery mechanisms'. Ummm.
Inevitably, Blond has his various detractors, who think he has a flair for TV politics as theatre and is a media glutton. To his credit, and the editor of the ResPublica website, I was glad to find that he had made no attempt to remove the following post after giving his address to the best of Britain's orchestras.
'Is there nothing you won't comment on, Phillip?' ranted someone. 'What on earth does “mass delivery systems” mean in the context of classical music? To us it means Radio 3 which has been around a hell of a long time. Have you suddenly become an expert on classical music? Give me, for instance, an example of a baroque classical concerto, or a romantic symphony? When you were a student, and then dossing in East End Council flats I think for you the height of high culture was the Happy Mondays.’
But I think this actually reflects well on Blond. For him to have been dossing on an East End bean bag not so long ago, and now to be playing host and chef de band with senior ministers – who call him up, frantically, before going on Any Questions, I am sure, asking what they should say – in the candlelight of the Disraeli Room at dinner… Doesn't that say that this is a man who really knows something about how to increase social mobility and real change in society today?
The speed with which Blond has re-invented himself is both galling and inspiring. To have come out of almost nowhere as an unknown fortysomething theologian, originally educated at Pensby Secondary School for Boys in Liverpool, and then emerge from various degrees at Hull, Warwick and Cambridge with some rigorous new philosophical ideas about how to 'fix' society through localism, or what Edmund Burke called 'the little platoons', and then rise to the giddiest heights of think-tank global ranking in just two years, is a testament to the meritocratic power of old fashioned will.