Jonathan Rabin, writing in the London Review of Books (republished in last Sunday’s Observer) exposes the unsavoury roots of Cameron’s “big society, small government” slogan. Phillip “Red Tory” Blond nicked it from two English Catholic admirers of Mussolini’s Italy, Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton (whose “Distributionist League” is, amazingly, still around on the net). This sort of reactionary-utopian “Merrie England” fantasy also meets with the approval of the Greens and some Lib Dems.
Chesterton and Belloc: Mussolini fans
“Blond, hailing Cameron’s ‘vision’, admiringly quotes him giving voice to thoughts he’s borrowed from Blond, which, in turn, Blond has borrowed from Chesterton and Belloc. ‘As Cameron pointed out, “The paradox at the heart of big government is that by taking power and responsibility away from the individual, it has only served to individuate them”’: this is pure Blond, especially in its but what does it mean? quotient. Does ‘them’ mean the singular ‘individual’? Does ‘individuate’ mean something like ‘make more “individualist”, and therefore selfish’? Who can tell. Cameron, who is usually plausibly articulate, abuses and misuses the language in a very Blondlike way when trying to channel his house philosopher. Blond tells us that Cameron offers ‘an associative society that is based on human relationships’, and pays this tribute to his pupil: ‘Cameron is crafting a politics of meaning that speaks to something more wanted and more needed than welfarism or speculative enrichment: it is the common project that the state has destroyed – nothing less than the recovery of the society we have lost and creation of the society we want.’ It doesn’t say much for Cameron’s vaunted intellect or his judgment that he is the willing mouthpiece for Blond’s secondhand ideas. The ‘moderniser’ of the Conservative Party has now found what he calls his ‘guiding philosophy’ in what began as Chesterton’s and Belloc’s homesickness for a rural and small-town life that never existed outside their Arcadian dream of Merrie England.
In a speech on 31 March, Cameron said:
Some people say that there are no big ideas left in politics. But I don’t agree. I think this is about as big as it gets. It’s not the big state that is going to tackle our social problems and increase our wellbeing. It’s the Big Society. And we know we have to use the state to help remake our society.
If Cameron were to look into the unsavoury ancestry of his big idea, he might be surprised to find out that it was originally hatched by two admirers of Mussolini’s Italy. As Belloc, who despised all forms of elective parliamentary government ‘save in aristocracies’, wrote in The Cruise of the Nona: ‘What a strong critical sense Italy has shown! What intelligence in rejection of sophistry, and what virility in execution! May it last!’ Fascism is not what Cameron has in mind, but his embrace of Blond’s crankish political philosophy makes one wonder what on earth he does have in mind.
Cameron badly wants to win the election, and a big idea, however tainted its source, however underexamined and ill-thought-out, is a useful thing to brandish at the electorate, especially if it provides a cloak of nobility and ‘ethos’ for the old Conservative ambition to take a cleaver and sunder the connection between the words ‘welfare’ and ‘state’. “
I’ll close with the memorable and wise (if drunken) words and feelings of James Dixon, which pretty much mirror my own on this subject:
“‘What finally, is the practical application of all this?’ Dixon said in his normal voice. He felt he was in the grip of some vertigo, hearing himself talking without consciously willing any words. ‘Listen and I’ll tell you. The point about Merrie England is that it was just about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto…’ He paused and swayed; the heat, the drink, the nervousness, the guilt at last joined forces in him…”