I was lucky enough to be invited to the Launch of ResPublica. Honoured, indeed, if one is to count honour by the number of popping photographers’ bulbs and the sheer groaning mass of Westminster Bubble people crowding into a fine room at number 1 Whitehall.
Phillip Blond’s new think tank has not really done anything yet, but everyone seems enormously excited about it because of its supposedly close to David Cameron, who was there to set it going with a few warm words about compassionate conservatism. Interesting, Phillip started off with “Thanks, David – we have received our orders”, causing more than one observer to string together words like “charitable status”, “political neutrality” and “Smith Institute”.
So what does this new approach actually consist of? From the speech and pamphlet, there seems to be
- a fair dose of miserabilism about the present (“The state has proved incapable of saving its own citizens from debt and servitude. Yes, we are not free, we are slaves
- a lot of fairly typical “Capitalism has failed” stuff, including the perennial “why can’t all companies be like John Lewis”. As Demos, centre left think tank, have also recently discovered in a mission to “Reinvent the Firm”.
- A repeat of that ill-proven trope, the “Social Mobility has Failed us All” thing. Somehow, with university participation rates climbing to 40% from 2-3% post War, this is the “state destroying the structures of working class advancement”.
- Oh and – wait for it, wait for it – localism. Yes, it now seems likely that only David Walker and Ed Balls will be left denying the Political Truth that making everything local will fix everything
- The prognosis: “rebuild society from the bottom up through civil association”.
I am going to ask a really churlish question. How?
- “the associative state can create a new type of capitalism by creating norms and building trust” and therefore cutting down on transactional costs that stem from us having this wrongful picture of an individualised self-interested man.
I am running out of time. I have sent the excellent and too-self-deprecating Rosie off to read about The Ownership State to see if there is anything really to it. Just some quick criticisms now:
If you counted the isms, it would rival Jon Cruddas, I am sure, and match him for lack of specific ideas. You can’t make a political manifesto out of “make every company like John Lewis”, even if it could work for oil, cars, restaurants, construction, and so on and so on.
How does a state change the norms of 60 million people? Oh, and more, because we have porous borders. This sounds either patronising, controlling, overly idealistic or just platitudinous, depending on what it actually involves. Ed Balls style lessons in citizenship and trust, perhaps, with compulsory ethics class at uni?
What is the proof that transactional costs are what is holding back the economy? it is a nice theory, but Douglass North et al have generally proven that Western institutions drove down transactional costs – this is why we are not enjoying African-style Civil society at present.
There is some arrant nonsense. What does “wealth is not simply an economic category, it has a moral import” mean? What does “markets laying claim to plenitude” mean? A market is not a Thing that Lays Claim to anything. It is a way of buying or selling . . . This is not actually meaningful. It is like saying “chairs don’t have opinions that are blue yesterday evening”.
So, I politely await some evidence that this amounts to anything – on some early signs, it doesn’t even actually make sense in parts. If this is right, and it all dies down in a few years, I find myself rather disappointed in the sheer cynicism of the Tories in associating with it. It sends out a signal saying “we think. We care”. But I can’t see what exactly it will add to a precise, costed, political programme in the difficult years ahead. Perhaps I will be proven wrong. Given the throng at the event today, I ought to hope so.
PS. When you try googling “slave whipping”, I found this amazing offer: