I recently came across an interesting perspective on political virtue presented by Phillip Blond in his book, Red Tory: How the Left and the Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It (London: Faber and Faber, 2010). Blond also founded a think tank in 2009, ResPublica – you can get a basic sense for the general contours of his thought by reading his speech at the opening of his foundation by clicking here.
Blond has been called the “philosopher king” behind British Prime Minister David Cameron’s theory of the “Big Society,” (reminiscent of Fr. John Ryan’s nickname as “Fr. New Deal” during FDR days, or the Niebuhr brothers’ influence upon public policy), and he was formerly a lecturer in theology at the Universities of Cumbria and Exeter.
The core of Blond’s theory is a reappropriation of “political virtue” as the core of a healthy and vibrant civil society. His theory upholds the values of restoring trust and vibrant local communities as a way of realigning the overgrown powers of both the state and market such that they are brought back to serve the common good of the people and the communities which they are intended to serve. Although he does not cite Alasdair MacIntyre, MacIntyrean ideas of virtue and community seem to permeate his thought, but with this one important distinction – he does not espouse the same kind of distrust of the modern state that defines much of the work of virtue ethicists such as MacIntyre or Stanley Hauerwas. This allows him to be critical of the paternalism of the modern welfare state, while also recognizing that any solution must involve the state, not circumvent or disregard it.
He argues -rightly, I believe – that what we currently have in the West is the worst of both the left and the right. The right places an uncritical faith in the powers of the free market, leading to higher concentrations of wealth in a small minority of the ultra-wealthy, while continuing to disenfranchise the poor or lower middle-class from engagement in either politics or the economy. Meanwhile, the left tries to mitigate the damage of the free market (which, by the way, they are equally beholden to) by keeping the lower classes in a permanent state of dependence upon welfare services and an inability to create their own wealth or assets. In this tennis match, the right cuts back on services and taxes without improving access for the poor, leading to more crises in local communities, and then the left responds with more centralized services and programs. We are stuck in this back and forth, with occasional moments where it seems that one side is winning over the other (Obama wins in 2008, the Tea Party rallies in 2010, and on and on…), but no real progress is made.
Blond’s conception of political virtue provides a way forward beyond this impasse, and I believe it is consistent with an ideal of Christian civic virtue that has survived in the Christian tradition – specifically within the moral and political thought of Thomas Aquinas, and in some aspects of modern Catholic social thought that can trace their roots back to Aquinas’ work. Drawing from the conservative side (which one must distinguish from the far right today that is not truly conservative), Blond’s theory agrees with the Christian emphasis on creating a society with a shared sense of the common good within strong, local communities where an ethos of trust, mutuality, and an equitable distribution of resources and goods are valued. Drawing on the progressive side, Blond’s theory of political virtue recognizes (at least implicitly) the message of the prophets and the Gospel that the justness of a society is measured by the ways in which the market and the state help to sustain the well-being of all, with special emphasis on those most vulnerable – the poor, the disenfranchized, wage-laborers, etc.
As Reinhold Niebuhr rightly pointed out, amidst the pervasiveness of sin and imperfection, all political progress toward justice moves in fits and starts, and the devil is always in the details. Blond has a plethora of practical ideas for reforming the British system, some of which may or may not resonate with Christian ethicists in an American context, but the similarities between his theory of political virtue and a Christian conception of civic virtue are enough to warrant continued friendly dialogue and exchange. Moreover, the popularity of his thought provides further evidence that the time is ripe for Christians to contribute a positive conception of civic virtue to the strengthening of civil society that is so desperately needed in these divisive times.