The Launch of ResPublica

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:

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc, and formerly in my mid-40s. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

8 thoughts on “The Launch of ResPublica

  1. Yup, he’s certainly up there with Cruddas for lack of substance. Even Cruddas seems to think he’s good at it. As I said in my longish piece on Red Toryism a few months back when he first started spouting this moral economy/asset-based localism tosh:

    ‘What I think it is already safe to say is that, despite Blond’s claims and Jon Cruddas’s naive agreement, there is little that is genuinely radical about Red Toryism. The kind of policies that Blond sets forth in both the Prospect essay and the Guardian piece are a mixture of the unintelligible, the already tried and the nice-sounding-but-utterly-ineffective.’

    See for a fuller examination of just how away with the fairies and behind the real policy debate Phillip Blond actually is. He’s nothing more than Cameronian PR, as he acknowledged himself, from your report.

  2. I wish I had seen that before!

    Thing is, I’ve met Phillip Blond, and on a personal level I like him and trust his sincerity. Maybe something concrete can come. But I am fairly sure that the Tories are using him, as you say, as PR. But, as another spectator points out, so too did New labour with Will Hutton.

  3. Yes, I try to make clear in my post that he does seem genuinely sincere, and his view is probably that given the likelihood of a Tory govt he’s better off trying to make them more ‘compassionate’ than bothering with support for Labour. It’s just that in terms of specific social policy stuff he seems woefully out of his depth, even while seeking to make that his prime focus. That may change of course if he’s got big think tank resources behind him, and to that extent it may be worth more informed people like you engaging with him while the likes of me do our best to kick him till it hurts for jumping in with the Tories.

    And you’re right about Will Hutton. Anthony Giddens for that matter.

  4. I was lucky enough to be there too. This Burkean, Smithian (moral sentiments) origin almost inevitably ends up in Thatcherism (she started with Burke, Smith, and the Chicago economists). Quite simply, the ‘associative’ society is not just waiting to spring out as soon as the welfare state and the regulatory state have been quashed. What is waiting is impoverishment and powerlessness. I really want to accept Phillip Blond’s arguments. But I find them almost completely divorced from the actual society in which we live, and that makes me very suspicious.

    That does not mean that there won’t be useful ideas in all this. Indeed, recently I have been writing about ownership and society/ environment/ economy, eg here. It makes me very suspicious that Blond didn’t even discuss poverty, inequality, powerlessness. We are almost invited to accept because it sounds better, it will be better.

    One has to be rather more sceptical than that. For its significant flaws, the state has made Britain better. It has limitations. But dismember it and you end up with the sort of brutalism that you get in some American cities. Civil society must be strong but it can’t be left alone.

  5. I was there too and met Anthony, Alex and a couple of the other usual suspects.

    Blond says he is ‘completely interested’ in the solutions I am putting forward, so watch this space.

    I have been thinking for some time that it is possible to create a suite of 21st Century “Common Wealth” policies suitable for a networked Society, and to invite politicians from all parties to sign up to them. I don’t think it’s necessary to (re) form a ‘Common Wealth” party though – more a movement or a forum.

    Blond has identified a vacuum which I think the Conservatives are not the natural candidates to fill. The phrase ‘solidarity’ – which is pretty much what he is homing in on, alongside the sovereignty of the individual (which I totally agree with) – is the natural ground of the Left, who abandoned it by equating solidarity with the State.

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