Whither conservatism in the 21st century? Would you believe a return, in part, to medieval times - with merchant guilds and craft guilds, with masters, journeymen and apprentices - to restrict capitalist competition and to advance an entrenched sense of community? As dubious and perhaps as dangerous as this proposition appears, it could supplant socialism as the dominant political philosophy of the next generation.
Stephen MacLean, a Nova Scotian who calls himself an "organic Tory" and who occasionally blogs as such, explains why the near-term future of conservatism may well reflect the more distant past. The historical Tory, he says, respects the individual and the state - not merely (as expressed so explicitly by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher) the individual. The historical Tory, he says, respects community and permits a society to develop along communitarian principles. Thus the guilds, which entrusted the price of bread (for example) to bakers alone. In contemporary Canadian terms, we would call it supply management.
Mr. MacLean, a master himself (in philosophy), isn't inventing this scenario, merely analyzing the philosophical importance of English theologian Phillip Blond - the champion of "communitarian conservatism" and the man most responsible for a sudden transformation in British politics.
Part of the Blond doctrine is simple politics and easy to understand. Mr. Blond argues that Britain's crisis is as much economic as social. He calls Britain "a broken society." He talks of the dead hand of the welfare state. More than 40,000 young people, he says, graduate from secondary school as illiterates. The country has the highest proportion of children living in "workless households" of all the EU countries. One million children have alcohol-addicted parents. Seventy per cent of young offenders come from single-parent families. And a welfare recipient who goes to work is taxed at a marginal rate of 96 per cent.
"The State encourages family breakdown and the taxpayer picks up all the resultant costs," Mr. Blond says. "This is madness." He condemns what he describes as Labour's tolerance of permanent poverty as "statism" and "social libertarianism." He accuses former Labour prime minister Tony Blair of condoning a kind of laissez-faire indifference to the poor.
But part of the Blond doctrine is cryptic. What changes does he propose? He presumably does not mean merely another expansion of the welfare state. What else is there?
Here we are advised to let Mr. MacLean guide us: "Mr. Blond's primary antagonist," he writes, "is monopoly capitalism, in which the few (with the compliance of the State) own the means of production. His prescription is to share the capitalist means of wealth production as sketched in [writer-historian]Hilaire Belloc's The Servile State, which took as its model the independent farms and artisan co-operatives of the late Middle Ages." Belloc said there would be "no proletariat on one side, no monopolising capitalist on the other."
This concept is radical enough to tempt the left. Earlier this year, the New Statesman, the left-wing British magazine, described Mr. Blond as "the philosopher king of the Conservatives" and published a largely laudatory analysis of his call for a radical new definition of conservatism. Writer Jonathan Derbyshire reported that Mr. Blond's New Conservatism was attracting support equally from the left and the right and declared that it represented "a grave threat [to the Labour Party]quot; - an implicit finding that the radical left, disillusioned and debilitated, was thinking seriously of changing sides. If it does, Conservative Leader David Cameron will sweep into office in national elections next year.
As for conservatism's 20th century alliance with Big Business, Mr. Blond says merely that conservatism has deeper roots "than Mrs. Thatcher." She erred, he says, in thinking that economic renaissance alone would restore Victorian morality and a stable society. Mrs. Thatcher excelled in economics, he says, "but the moral objective entirely eluded her."
Conservatives must first re-position themselves as the champions of the poor, he says - noting in an October essay that Mr. Cameron got his biggest ovation at a conference when he declared that Conservatives must make an end to poverty its highest priority. In forming the next government, he said, they must achieve "the recapitalization of the poor," a process that would require governments to stop propping up corporations at public expense.
"It is Conservatives who now wish to resurrect the communal and to restore the social," Mr. Blond writes. "The Tory logic of family, locality and civil and voluntary society is a truly radical agenda." Mr. Blond calls himself a Red Tory - not especially helpful to Canadians, who still have trouble distinguishing Red Tories from socialists and statists. He compounds this problem by calling himself "a progressive conservative," an oxymoronic term in Canadian politics. Indeed, the popularity of Tory logic could make "regressive conservatism" the more useful expression in the days ahead.