ResPublica? You’re having a laugh


12:30 pm - November 27th 2009

by Hopi Sen    


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I have no idea why various policy people get so excited by Philip Blond. Everything he says sends my inner bullshit detector into sirens blaring overload. Even the title of his new thinktank make’s me think of Johnson from Peepshow. ResPublico/ResPublicus, anyone?

Anyway, whenever someone perfectly sensible tries to get their head arounds this stuff, they end up writing a thousand words on the complex inner contradictions and fuzzyness on specifics inherent in the “Red Tory” project, which is a polite Thinktank way of saying it’s a load of old toss.

I have a simpler version. It’s toss, with the sole interesting feature being that it is fashionable toss. Why it is fashionable is a far more interesting a question than what Philip Blond is actually saying.*

I mean read this stuff:

“A new power of association could be delivered to all citizens so that if they are indeed in an area that receives public services in a form that can be identified both by sector and by type and if area specific budgetary transparency is delivered such that each place knows what is being spent on it, then if those services are less than they should be in terms of quality, design or applicability, then there should be a new civil power of pre-emptory budgetary challenge that is given to any associative group that claims to represent those in its area”

Why is it such waffle? Because if it wasn’t, if it was clear and you knew anything about housing, you’d probably say something like, “ah, like a Tenant management organisation you mean? But hold on, arent’ they part of the state that’s destroying society a paragraph ago…” and then you’d go, “ah, this is all toss”.

Which it is. So don’t bother yourselves with it.

(BTW, If the transcript of the launch is to be believed, the one thing that can be said about red Toryism is that it is resolutely, indefatigably opposed to commas. This is not good.)

As someone once said to me – Many things that are provocative are not worth arguing with. Red Toryism is one such.

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This is a guest post. Hopi Sen blogs here.
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Reader comments


Hopi, I thought you got off an a bit of flowery wonk-speak? I dunno why, I’d always assumed it was the sort of thing that would give you a raging stiffy.

Rather than indulging in a good old Ad Hominem fallacy, you could engage with a few of the specific policies that have the mark of Blond about them. But you won’t, presumably, because that would mean admitting they’re good ideas.

And no, *not* like TMOs, since TMOs are only charged with implementing council directives, and cannot meaningfully oppose.

See, I always assume you were a smart boy, but now seeing your inability to grasp a simple sentence written in wonkese, I’m not so sure.

BACK TO INSULTING.

‘the one thing that can be said about red Toryism is that it is resolutely, indefatigably opposed to commas.’

Blair and Brown’s speechwriters get rid of verbs, and now the Cameroons declare jihad on punctuation. Half a dozen more ‘dynamic’ party leaders and politicians won’t be using sentences.

On topic: why are so many British thinktanks so full of snake-oil salesmen whose output is either an advertising man’s PowerPoint pitch or a glutinous mass of obfuscations? Blond sounds horrendous, but I’m not sure he’s that different from the guys and gals at Demos- half of whom appear to be bidding for work with the Tories now anyway.

“On topic: why are so many British thinktanks so full of snake-oil salesmen whose output is either an advertising man’s PowerPoint pitch or a glutinous mass of obfuscations?”

Because nobody knows what anybody stands for, ideology is a cuss-word, the middle-class centre ground decides elections and everyone in the political classes is scared of expressing a commitment or belief which can be pinned down because this might displease more people than it pleases in the centre, thus tipping the balance to the opposition.

Much safer to stick with platitudes, but to enact think tanks whose purpose is a) to make your platitudes sound meaningful, b) decontaminate your horrible nasty party.

Hopi: I take your point about prose style – this is not a strong point when it comes to the theologians of Radical Orthodoxy. And I agree it has something to do with being evasive about what is actually being said.

But then this leaves us with a puzzle. Given that the prose is often so poor, and the ideas often only half-baked, why does Red Toryism create such a stir?

At least part of the answer, I think, is that it does connect with anxieties and ideals of the left about the proper place of mutuality and community. Phillip Blond’s ‘associative state’ doesn’t sound very far from the ‘associative democracy’ that Paul Hirst was writing about in the 1990s. (Its a terrible shame that Paul Hirst isn’t still with us – he died in 2003 – I would dearly love to see him go up against Phillip Blond.) It resonates with the mutualism that Michael Young and others sought to inject into the left’s thinking throughout the postwar period.

In other words, Red Toryism is situated on interesting terrain – terrain the left needs to explore. So I think it wrong to dismiss Red Toryism. The more appropriate response is to do a better – and certainly a better, more clearly articulated – exploration of the terrain.

1 -“Rather than indulging in a good old Ad Hominem fallacy, you could engage with a few of the specific policies that have the mark of Blond about them. But you won’t, presumably, because that would mean admitting they’re good ideas.”

But part of the problem with Red Toryism is that there aren’t any specific policies.

From memory, there was the one about how the government should make a profit by selling off the banks which it now owns at a profit and use the money to recapitalise the poor, but however admirable this might be, it rather foundered on the point that the government would make a massive loss, not a profit, if it sold the banks off.

Say what you like about most think tanks, but at least they have actual policies rather than waffle.

Martin, I’ve never been much of a wonk-ist. There are some really great ones, and no doubt some interesting ideas, but I find a lot of it too insubstantial.

Also, I hate going to seminars and lectures and so on. I start squirming uncomfortably in my seat when people ask a question of more than two sentences in length. On top of that, I usually think I’m better than the person giving the talk or on the panel, and I get distracted by gnawing self doubt and raging jealousy.

On your serious point -I would love to engage with some policies. So far there’s “tax supermarket car parks” and “support post offices” to choose from. Since we spend a fortune on subsidising the post office network already, I suppose I could have talked more about car parks.

Stuart, I think a lot of the interest on the left comes from nice soft lefties wanting there to be a radical toryism of social progressiveness to engage with , so are exageratedly interested when something of that nature is presented to them – even when it is risible guff. Oddly, the Tories I’ve spoken to are much more clearsighted about what it represents.

“I have a simpler version. It’s toss, with the sole interesting feature being that it is fashionable toss.”

This will no doubt have Hopi rapidly questioning the views expressed above but…..I agree.

I’ve not yet seen anything from this Red Tory argument that isn’t entire and unmitigated toss.

@6:

Phillip Blond’s flowery style does make it rather difficult to get to grips with what specifically he’s hinting at, but I’ve never had any difficulty understanding the core premise.

The thesis is simple: that Big Business and Big Government are both actively harmful to the man in the street, that they are exclusionary, damaging to the societal values that we claim to hold dear, and centralize power over people’s lives in the hands of a small number of already-powerful people.

To that end, we must make business and government smaller and work for the people: and the way to achieve that is nothing less than a ground-up reconstruction of civil society, making business and government highly localised and subservient to civil society.

How we achieve that aim is left as an exercise to the reader.

“you’d probably say something like, “ah, like a Tenant management organisation you mean?”

Or a Council?

I’d almost forgotten about Red Toryism. It made a bit of a stir here a while back with even the normally more sensible Sunder claiming it offers a serious challenge to the Left – before it vanished into deserved obscurity. Or so I’d thought.

I think there’s a degree of wishful thinking. Nobody really thinks New Labour will win the next election and some people are hoping we get a less ‘Tory’ Tory government.

@9:

Do you understand the difference between ‘the state’ and ‘not the state’?

It’s pretty fundamental. Do keep up.

12. Mike Killingworth

[11] I was at a meeting on Wednesday about setting up a TMO on the Estate I live on. A TMO indeed is “not the state”, it’s a QUANSDO (quasi-autonomous neighbourhood service delivery organisation) – do you seriously think the local Council is going to let us set rents or decide who to evict, or to house in flats that become vacant?

It’s pretty fundamental. Do try to keep up.

@11, why is it fundamental?

Surely in a democracy, it’s more or less irrelevant: either I and the other people in my community get to vote for local councillors, who make decisions about local housing based on what we want on aggregate; or I and the other people in my community get to vote for a committee of tenants, who make decisions about local housing based on what we want on aggregate. Whether it’s nominally of the state or not is completely irrelevant, as far as I can see?

Now, obviously if everything is managed at so high and bureaucratic a level that in practice there’s no local decisionmaking, that’s rubbish: but that would be just as well solved by transferring powers from Westminster to regional and local government as by transferring them to random groups of busybodies…

8. And here, I’m afraid, we enter the world of guff!

“that Big Business and Big Government are both actively harmful to the man in the street… To that end, we must make business and government smaller”

and how do “we” make _both_ government and business smaller? Via transcendental meditation? Ah, no, by the magic hand of “civil society”, which is whwere the guff sneaks in.

To take an example, It strikes me that if “we” desire to make big business smaller, “we” must make _something_ more intrusive and interfering. Let’s call it this new actor “Civil Society”.

If we give “civil society” the power to deny planning applications, or withold funding from a school, or raise or lower taxes, or split up corporation on their say so, we turn “civil society” into something that looks, feels and acts like a v regulatory interfering government, if a rather localist one. But it isn’t, oh no, because that kind of intrusive government is v bad.

Could I just say that

“I hate going to seminars and lectures and so on. I start squirming uncomfortably in my seat when people ask a question of more than two sentences in length. On top of that, I usually think I’m better than the person giving the talk or on the panel, and I get distracted by gnawing self doubt and raging jealousy.”

Is one of the most funny-because-it’s-true things I have ever read?

16. Stuart White

Hopi @ 6: ‘Stuart, I think a lot of the interest on the left comes from nice soft lefties wanting there to be a radical toryism of social progressiveness to engage with , so are exageratedly interested when something of that nature is presented to them – even when it is risible guff. Oddly, the Tories I’ve spoken to are much more clearsighted about what it represents.’

Well, I can’t speak for all ‘nice soft lefties’ but speaking for myself I have expressed persistent doubts over at Next Left about the reality of ‘progressive conservatism’ on everything from poverty and inequality to political reform. My own interest in Red Toryism certainly doesn’t reflect any expectation that it will actually mean that a future Tory government is in any way progressive or a need to believe in the reality of a progressive Toryism. I agree with Sunder Katwala’s analysis that the Tories will likely ignore the economic, anti-free market side of Red Toryism and pick up selectively on its anti-state side, harnessing it to what will really be a neo-Thatcherite agenda.

As I said, the reason to engage with Red Toryism is because it is actually, in some respects (by no means all), a peculiar reflection of concerns that ought properly to be those of the left.

Who is paying for Respublica? They’ve allegedly raised £1.5 million. According to the Guardian, £150,000 comes from Tesco who Blond then attacked. And the rest?

Given that the prose is often so poor, and the ideas often only half-baked, why does Red Toryism create such a stir?

Because it’s got an intriguing, paradoxical name.

Isn’t competition the nub of the matter? In an efficient market, private companies compete with one another to sell you goods and services. Although they don’t have your interests at heart, given a choice, you won’t buy a shoddy product at a high price – so all the sellers have to act as though they have your interests at heart because otherwise you will go elsewhere.

The state is supposed to have your interests at heart (or the aggregated interest of its citizens anyway) but it is much harder to provide competition in government services and one consequence is that state provided services are sometimes not all they could be. Sometimes, they’re wonderful and sometimes they’re awful.

One way to create a form of competition that might have a beneficial effect on all services is to create the presumption that, if citizens don’t like what the state is doing on their behalf, they can take over the service and do it themselves. If, having done it for a while, they feel they have made their point, they can hand it back.

The important point is not the moment at which the citizens’ group becomes a branch of the state, the point is that responsibility delivery can pass between the state and its citizens. However, as with any competition, it is important to ensure that the competition is fair. This is the reason that Mike’s putative TMO would be kept on a short leash.

Imagine if the properties on the estate were transferred to a Co-op owned by the tenants. Assuming that rents on the estate generate a surplus, the co-op would have to buy the properties off the current landlord at a price which reflects the capital value of the rent surplus. If the co-op paid less than that, it would be depriving the former landlord of a revenue stream that it would have used to maintain other homes that were in disrepair or providing new affordable housing or whatever. The co-op would need to service a loan to pay that capital price and this would need to be met from rents. That would prevent the rents from being lowered much. Of course, if the Co-op could borrow money cheaply and could manage, repair and maintain the properties more efficiently than the previous landlord then it would indeed be able to lower rents.

As to the question of what to do about the allocation of vacancies, the co-op would certainly be required to sign an undertaking that the properties would be made available on the basis of need – just as other subsidised properties are. It would, for example, be outrageous if a group of tenants were to take control of a group of heavily subsidised homes and then refuse to accept statutorily homeless households when one of those homes fell vacant.

Council run, ALMO, RSL, TMO, Co-op – it doesn’t matter whether they are the state or not, it matters that they are all doing the same job and that they are all doing it on an equal footing. That allows a degree of competition (albeit within limits) and both services and cost-effectiveness should be improved.

”Why is it such waffle?”

At uni, we were told to critique Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge. That question, why is it such waffle, was the basis of my critique, much to the annoyance of my tutor.

Never trust an argument that can’t be made clearly.

Saying that I like Blonde and he’s good for the tories. In the modern age parties are election winning machines and most else is secondary to that. So you need some contrasting intellectualism behind the election fighting bit. The tories have plenty neo liberalist ideas people, so something different is good.

@11

I don’t see that it’s fundamental at all. If he is advocating giving a representative body an institutional role in governmental decision making, then insisting that that body is non-state strikes me as an exercise in sophistry.

22. Richard Blogger

Hopi, the toss has even made its way over to LabourList with most people replying with WTF are you talking about?

I know that Dickens believed in sentences that lasted for pages, but in these modern times we read and think differently: sentences these days are shorter and punchier. So why is it that “Red-Tories” write in a way that seems to have gone out of style a century ago? Does the relevance of their prose to a modern world indicate the relevance of their politics?

Sensible Andy Grice column in The Independent on the role of think-tanks in general, and Red Tory ResPublica in particular

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/andrew-grice/andrew-grice-enough-of-the-highflown-philosophy-mr-cameron-where-are-the-policies-1829867.html

Red Toryism is a colour of face?

Alcohol, anger or embarassment?

25. Mike Killingworth

[24] I never met a Tory capable of embarrassment, and of course alcohol fuels the expression of anger: in vino veritas.

@3 Paul Sagar: Because nobody knows what anybody stands for, ideology is a cuss-word, the middle-class centre ground decides elections and everyone in the political classes is scared of expressing a commitment or belief which can be pinned down because this might displease more people than it pleases in the centre, thus tipping the balance to the opposition.

Well said. And this is one of the reasons why the FPTP voting system needs to be got rid off, because until we do the voters will never get real choice on real ideological alternatives.

27. Alisdair Cameron

FWIW, Blond isn’t actually terribly complicated with what he proposes, but I’d say deliberately uses obfuscatory language in order to add mystique and to mask the fact that much of what he advocates is going to be impossible to implement (he’s very light on practicalities and methods) without uprooting damn near all of the powerful vested interests in the country on both the right and left of the spectrum, from big corporations to large state bodies . In other words it’s mainly pipe-dream stuff, some attractive to the left (as Sunder rightly points out, especially the smaller corporate side of things and the devolved down power/localism aspects) some less so, some attractive to the right (smaller state). It isn’t rocket science, isn’t even particularly new, just in new packaging with added (opaque) blurb. BTW, the language is no worse than the mangled pish that Demos sometimes emit, again (almost in the manner of management consultants and other snake-oil salesmen) wilfully woolly: this is to try and achieve an assumption of profundity and wisdom by those unprepared to engage with the alphabetti-spaghetti of their prose, plus if you keep things vague, you’re less accountable.

28. Mike Killingworth

[27] Blond is the Chesterbelloc de nos jours

29. Alisdair Cameron

@ Mike Killingworth (28). Hmm, on that whole Christian distributist localist (and against empire building by some readings, be that colony-empires or ideological ones) angle you have a point,but their prose style’s considerably better. As I say, it’s quite possible Blond’s prose is deliberately the way it is, to half-mask the fact it’s old wine in new bottles.

30. Mike Killingworth

[29] Nah, he just can’t write. Or think straight.

But someone somewhere is paying him oodles of dosh to publicise this stuff. How does one board this gravy train? My first publication as a think tanker would be to the effect that we don’t need think tanks.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    :: ResPublica? You’re having a laugh http://bit.ly/6Dp0fH

  2. RupertRead

    RT @libcon: :: ResPublica? You’re having a laugh http://bit.ly/6Dp0fH

  3. Martin Coxall

    Ooh, @HopiSen having a pop at @Phillip_Blond over at @libcon. FIIIIIGHT! http://is.gd/54E7F

  4. Tweets that mention Liberal Conspiracy » ResPublica? You’re having a laugh -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, RupertRead. RupertRead said: RT @libcon: :: ResPublica? You’re having a laugh http://bit.ly/6Dp0fH […]





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