A Visit from the Big Society

Originally published in the 1 September 2012 issue of the Spectator Australia.

You would expect Phillip Blond to have nicer things to say about Malcolm Turnbull. The British political guru is most famous for being the house philosopher of David Cameron’s kinder, gentler, greener conservatism, and for writing a book-length manifesto with the discomfiting title of Red Tory. His Australian media tour, which concluded Saturday before last, was a week-long strike of the ideological tuning fork intended to get Australian politicians singing in the key of the Big Society. He blames the woes of the British Tories on wilful hardliners having been allowed to “retoxify” the Conservative brand. If you were looking for a pundit to argue that the Liberals need someone less polarising than Tony Abbott to lead them into the next election, Phillip Blond would match the Identikit.

But when I asked him about Turnbull, whom people are still touting for a leadership comeback, Blond said, “He’s a very clever man, but he’s more of a liberal than a conservative, and that ultimately isn’t my direction.” Tony Abbott, on the other hand, is “a philosophical, thoughtful and gifted man,” and his platform is “going in the right direction.” In Britain, the Conservatives’ compassionate new agenda was packaged with a smooth, metropolitan and accommodating frontman. But if the overt message of Blond’s tour was that Big Society conservatism is still the way forward, the subtextual addendum to that advice was: you can just as easily hitch that message to a man who looks and sounds like Tony Abbott as to an urban sophisticate who’s more palatable to the cocktail-party crowd. As a man who has watched David Cameron more closely than most, Blond ought to know.

Blond had private meetings with both Abbott and Turnbull during his tour of Australia, the sit-down with Abbott lasting over an hour. He also met with, among others, Greg Hunt, Andrew Robb and most of the rest of the Liberal front bench, as well as Wayne Swan, Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff and a stray committee chairman from the Russian Duma who clearly has an eccentric idea of summer vacation. Even Prime Minister Gillard gave him a ring to say hello and welcome.

Reflecting on these meetings, Blond says he felt “heard and engaged” by the people he met with, but also that he “said some things that were hard for them to hear.” The bit about capitalism being a “rentier’s charter” was one of those things, I’d bet. Also the line about free markets having “created a Marxist situation.” For Blond, Red Toryism means keeping his criticism of the state and his criticism of the market in perfect equipoise. He’s down on government dependence, but he’s also down on wage labor. He prefers owner-proprietorship or, next best, collective ownership of business enterprises: after he leaves Australia, his next speaking engagement is at an event celebrating the “International Year of the Co-operative” (forgot to mark that one on your calendar, didn’t you?). He has also advocated breaking up supermarket giants like Tesco and changing the law to favour mom-and-pop butchers and bakers.

The central pillar of Blond’s economic program is the use of the state to “recapitalise the poor.” He’d like to see more of them owning their own houses and business, of course, but he’d also like to see them take over ownership — and, less enticing for them, management — of community services. For someone so eloquent on the demotivational effect that unearned welfare can have on individuals, Blond seems rather confident that free money from the government won’t have the same effect on the motivation (or the efficiency) of charity groups.

I’m not sure what the Liberal front bench made of all this, but the crowd at the Menzies Research Centre seemed warm to Blond. Of course, his speech to the MRC wasn’t all Red and no Tory. He spoke quite well on the topic of cutting bureaucracy through decentralisation, on the importance of civil society to personal well­being, and on superannuation being a healthy expression of an ownership society. The more lefty tidbits didn’t seem to bother anyone much. The audience was heavy on businessmen, and businessmen are much cannier about gurus like Blond than non-businessmen give them credit for. They know perfectly well that the most provocative line, when reduced to the level of practical advice, can often boil down to a commonplace like “Treat your workers well,” “Give to charity when you can,” or “If a new family moves into your neighbourhood, for heaven’s sake bring them a casserole or something.” Blond also fanned the coals of his warm welcome by saying that the Big Society would be easier to implement in Australia than in Britain thanks to Australia’s comparatively sound budget and firmly-established charitable sector.

As for his worries about Australia’s future, Big Society–wise, at the top of Blond’s list is the fact that “Australia’s political language is small and impoverished” and our politicians are “very clever people who speak as if they’re ignorant.” Blond says he agreed with his fellow Q&A panellist Cassandra Goldie when she remarked, “It would be great if more politicians talked about love.” It’s hard to figure how talking about love would make politicians sound less foolish rather than more. Back in 1983, when Bob Hawke proposed to run his campaign not on the theme of tax cuts but on reconciliation and ‘bringing Australia together’, New South Wales Labor Premier Neville Wran replied, “It’s all very well to go on with all that spiritual stuff, but if the greedy bastards out there wanted spiritualism they’d join the f***ing Hare Krishna.”

As long as Phillip Blond sells big ideas for a living, he’s bound by self-interest to keep arguing that politicians should talk more about big ideas. But who knows what will happen if he enters professional politics, which he says is a distinct possibility? He already came quite close to running for mayor of his native Liverpool (in which case the Mark Latham parallels would have gone from noticeable to positively conspicuous). If Blond does enter that field, he may come to discover what Tony Abbott already knows: the spiritual stuff is all well and good, but the real path to a voter’s heart goes through his hip pocket.