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Political Theology 13.3: Investigating Red Toryism

This last month has seen many local and national celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in the UK.  There have been services of thanksgiving, a boat parade, street parties, a pop concert, picnics and lots of queuing, all very English.  It has provided opportunity for those who might otherwise feel that their sympathies for the monarchy aren’t quite proper to give full vent to their attachment to the royal family.  One of those is Philip Blond, once described as Cameron’s intellectual guru and the originator of Red Toryism, who has tweeted furiously about his love of all things royal.  It is the monarchy, he says, which makes democracy possible.  The monarchy which provides the organic stability so that difference and divergence can be debated in a democratic polity.  Caught up in the joy of the celebrations Blond plays with a lovely paradox, that monarchy in which people are subjects, is the only sure guarantee of a citizen democracy.  It is another example of Blond’s capacity to ride on the tide of popular sentiment whilst challenging liberal assumptions.

The collection of papers published in issue 13.3 of Political Theology examine the important political phenomenon of Red Toryism.  This is the British version of Red Toryism, associated with the political thinker and lobbyist Philip Blond, rather than the Canadian.  There are three reasons why Red Toryism is of especial interest to political theologians.

The first is that Red Toryism is a substantial part of the intellectual underpinning of British Prime Minister Cameron’s guiding notion of ‘Big Society’.  Certainly during Cameron’s early days as Conservative Party leader he seemed influenced by Blond and welcoming of the work of the ResPublica think tank that Blond founded and runs.  There was an apparent synergy between Big Society and Red Toryism in some of the ideas of reinvigorating civil society.  Although the importance of Big Society seems to have diminished, swallowed up by the realities of daily government and also the reductions in public spending which undermined the rhetoric of strong local communities, as of yet there is no intellectual alternative to Big Society ideas.  So when we think about the political philosophy of Cameron’s government then Red Toryism, through the vehicle of Big Society, is still centrally important.  Furthermore Cameron has sought to promote again some of the central ideas of Big Society, most of which Blond appears to support.

A second reason Red Toryism is interesting relates to the biography of Philip Blond.  As some of the contributors note Blond is a former academic theologian who worked at the University of Cumbria.  For academic political theologians to achieve the public influence of Blond is very unusual in the UK.  Blond’s position as a well-known political speaker raises interesting methodological questions for political theology, not least of which is what role his theology plays in the political proposals he advocates.  In the papers that follow Elaine Graham pursues this question seeking to understand whether Blond is a significant contemporary political theologian or merely a politician who used to be a theologian.  Related to this question is the third interesting aspect of Red Toryism, namely its relationship to the work of John Milbank.  As is noted by a number of the contributors Blond was a doctoral student of Milbank’s and is a member of the Radical Orthodoxy movement.  Blond’s theological identity is as a Radical Orthodoxy supporter and this of course impacts on what he perceives to be the political theological task.  Red Toryism can sometimes seem thin material for academic consideration but, again as is noted by a number of contributors, it leads on to some interesting discussions of Milbank’s work.  So there are three good reasons why theologians might want to investigate further the work of Philip Blond and the ideas of Red Toryism.

Although Red Toryism is important for political theologians there has so far been little critical engagement with its main ideas.  We are very grateful to Malcolm Brown, Mark Chapman, Elaine Graham, Peter Scott, and Graeme Smith for their papers which are the first significant contributions to the debate.  It is not easy starting a discussion from scratch.  However what has been produced is insightful and fascinating in the range, style and content of analysis.  Furthermore each contribution was commissioned independently and the authors were not aware of each others’ work.  So they have all worked in the dark as it were.  Philip Blond was asked if he would like to contribute to the discussion however so far this has not been possible to arrange.

Blond’s book Red Tory is the substantial text with which each contributor starts.  However the book is intended for a popular audience and so rightly and interestingly the shift in these papers is frequently to Milbank’s work.  The papers are structured so that we begin with an historical consideration of the place of Red Toryism.  There then follows three critical appreciations before the final paper which looks at the contemporary interaction of Red Toryism and Blue Labour, itself potentially a subject for a future issue of the journal. We hope the papers will provoke lively discussions.  There is not space for a detailed consideration of the individual papers and it is not a good idea to try and find a shared theme in them for the sake of identifying something in common.  However one recurrent issue seems to be how Red Toryism and Milbank’s political theology respond to religious, cultural and political diversity.  In other words a key political theological concern is the capacity of Christianity to live with what Scott refers to as, citing Raymond Williams, the ‘long revolution’ or what Graham sees as the valuable contributions of social and political theory.  It may be that Figgis is important here as Chapman notes, and has argued before, or the work of Vattimo and Zabala examined by Smith.  As a result of the publication of these papers we hope that this and other issues they provoke can be the subject of later issues.

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