Interview by Nick Spencer
The author of Red Tory and a leading
proponent of 'the Big Society', Phillip Blond has been a
major influence on David Cameron. Third Way met
him in central London at the offices of his think-tank,
You were born in Liverpool - into a working-class
Gosh, no, I'd never say that - but it wasn't
straightforwardly middle-class. I'd call it 'bohemian', really. My
father was an artist and they ran an art gallery in London, so it
was a culturally sophisticated background.
Did Liverpool form your mind?
Part of it. If you live in Merseyside, the area very much
impregnates your thinking. I think Liverpool is one of the greatest
British cities, and I think Liverpudlians are profoundly different
from anywhere else in the country - they're romantic, they're
visionary and creative, and they also associate to try and
[achieve] certain things.
One thing that Liverpool has a particular reputation for
is its cohesive sense of identity. Has that shaped the way you
think about community and social structures?
I think it's more being in an area where everyone makes
the wrong moves and seeing the cost of that to everyone. It wasn't
just Liverpool that was being hit during Mrs Thatcher['s
premiership], it was the North - an entire region and an entire
culture - and it felt very much like an attack. But I thought the
response from the trade unions was woeful - it was never going to
deliver a future that people would like to live in. And when a
culture is attacked and the response is profoundly wrong, you begin
to think around that.
Where did your family stand between the Thatcherite right
and the Militant left?
My family wasn't political at all - it was mostly art and
literature and so forth. I was always profoundly interested in
politics - I was quite left-wing when I was a kid, for all the
right reasons, though I was very suspicious of the vehicles that
the left used to try and achieve its ends, so I never joined a
political party or anything.
Had I asked you as a teenager what you wanted to be when
you grew up, what would you have said?
I always wanted to do something academic, because I had a
profound love for what was realised by academia; and also I wanted
to do something political. But I had a real distaste for the kind
of party politics that was operative - so it's odd how it's all
come together, you know? I'm quite sort of - quite shocked,
Did you have any religious inheritance?
No, not at all. Well, I mean, in one sense yes - on my
mother's side it was Catholic, on my father's side it was Jewish,
and often in those kind of mixed marriages the parents decide not
to do anything - and that was the case [for me]. But what was good
was that I had a profound kind of exposure to the two great Western
traditions, in my view - Judaism and Catholicism - and I remain
profoundly sympathetic to both. Which is why, of course, in my
twenties I became an Anglican.
Where did your desire to commit yourself, in political and
religious terms, come from, if it wasn't instilled in you by your
I think - this sounds more cruel than I intend it to be,
but my parents were 1960s people and I really saw the limits of
that value set, and the limits of what it is to not believe in
What were their values? A kind of individualism?
No, it's a kind of rootless indifference. And having been
brought up in the legacy of that 1960s approach really turned me
against it - seeing how social liberalism destroyed working-class
people and working-class economies. It was meant to free people
but it just made war on the poor endlessly: economically, socially
You then studied politics and philosophy at Hull - but you
felt they provided no answers, is that right?
Yeah. All the political options that were available were
unsatisfying. On the left, you had social libertarianism that
claimed to be progressive and care for people and yet seemed to
endorse practices, such as abortion, that seemed to me to be kind
of profoundly hostile to human values. And on the right they didn't
seem to conserve anything at all: the approach was purely
market-based and everything I liked about conservatism - a concern
for family, stability, institutions, limited powers, a critique of
utopia - seemed to be replaced by thinking that was highly
ideological and incredibly utopic.
What happens in politics is that people have one idea and then
they stop thinking: they rest heavily on that one idée fixe and, as
far as I can see, become irrational on an intellectual level - you
know, just the state or just the market. Whereas what we actually
needed was a genuine interrogation of that opposition.
In later life, I think I'd say that actually both were liberal:
we've had left-wing government by social liberalism and right-wing
government by economic liberalism - and I think both are highly
destructive. In my view, Britain has failed to be the country it
should have been since the Second World War, and I think both sides
have conspired in that.
Was there a particular point when you turned your
attention to theology?
Everything with me is gradual. You know, I don't have
religious experiences or anything like that. I think that in my
third year [at Hull] I sort of thought that none of the political
problems in our society could be resolved by current thinking and I
thought: Well, [the solutions] have to be philosophical. So, I
studied philosophy and then I thought: You can't solve
philosophical problems outside of theology. All modern philosophy
takes you to is uncertainty, relativism, scepticism or
In most philosophy faculties, I imagine, the idea of going
to theology for answers would be laughed out of court.
I think that 20 years ago you'd have been laughed out of
court, but I don't think it's true any longer. If you think of all
the really important thinkers nowadays, many of them I think are
religious, from Charles Taylor2 to [Alasdair] MacIntyre3 and so
forth. Actually, religion is becoming more important not only
politically, socially and economically but also philosophically.
Intellectually, I really think that the nadir of Christianity
You went to Cambridge to do a doctorate…
Yes, on beatific vision and St Thomas Aquinas. And one
day I'll publish it. I still read books on ontological
Is that where you first met John Milbank and became
involved with Radical Orthodoxy?4
Yeah! And I think he's been a profound influence on me - but Rowan
Williams' theological work is also, I think, profoundly important
and instructive, and then there's a whole range of British thinkers
from Donald McKinnon5 to Grace Davie.6
What was it that Christian thought gave you that more secular or
narrowly philosophical explorations did not?
I think the profoundest thing I read, other than Aquinas, was
Henri de Lubac's Surnaturel , and what I learnt from him was
that Nature itself is a religious category and secularity was
originally a theological move - a heretical one - achieved most
explicitly, for me, by William of Ockham, out of a sense of piety.
He thought that if God was in some way related to the world, the
world constrained and limited God; and so we had to make it
independent. But once you separate the world from God, you separate
it from its transcendent origin and you claim that you can explain
it apart from God. And, for me, the kind of intellectual revelation
was that you could bring explanations of the world and
explanations of God back together again. And that's what
Radical Orthodoxy does, and that I profoundly agree with.
So, for me, once you have said that explanation of the world lies
in explanation of God, and once you then can renarrate the world in
the light of its [ultimate purpose], you can do the same for
politics and for education and you can do the same for human
beings. (I think one of the things I've learnt in much later life
is that actually without teleology you can't achieve anything. You
can't even achieve a society.) And that for me heals the breach
that liberalism introduced.
Liberalism says: Well, in effect we can't know anything beyond our
own will (and we probably don't even know our own will). And
because we can't know anything, we can't form any form of
association that would be authentic to us, not just with animate
creatures but with the inanimate; and therefore we can't in any
sense build group or social identity that can achieve any end
whatsoever. And what that then means is, essentially, the world is
left at the mercy of powerful individuals, who inevitably will
dominate all other individuals and create not liberty but ever
more unpleasant forms of totalitarianism. So, I am of the school
that says if you have liberty as first philosophy, you'll have
totalitarianism as final outcome.
From Cambridge you went, via Exeter, to Cumbria - a long way, in
every sense, from the centre of public life. How did your ideas
All I did in that period, really, was just read, very widely:
economics, history, anthropology, technology. And I looked at
the Canadian political tradition, at Gad Horowitz and his notion
of 'red Toryism', and I thought: No, that's not what I want. I'm
not for welfare, it's kind of statism. But then I thought: What's
the best of the left? The best of the left, before it was ruined
by Marx and statism and Fabianism, is the idea that poor people
don't need to be poor. I agree with that. I agree with that
profoundly. That's the red part of me.
But only a radical conservatism can really create the conditions
to meet that end. Only a form of - I don't like the term 'social
conservatism', because it suggests that you're making war on gay
people or on one-parent families, so I now use the phrase 'social
conservation': we need to preserve human beings and their
relationships - only a form of social conservation plus genuine
free-market economics, breaking open monopolies and oligopolies,
would actually deliver the world we need.
How did you come to end up in the Westminster
I was a genuine outsider - I knew nobody and nobody knew
me - but in 2008 I got a break to start writing for the Guardian
(and I'm very grateful to the Guardian for that). I wrote several
articles about the sort of radical conservatism we needed, and that
attracted attention. The Conservatives got in touch with me, I
met David Cameron - and you know the rest.
Were you happy to leave academic theology behind?
I don't think it was my métier. I had some good ideas, but I think
it wasn't the right way for my mind to go. As soon as I do
political and social thinking, I think I'm able to solve problems
very quickly - at least in my own mind! And all of that reading for
nearly a decade came together and it became quite a powerful
How was your 'red Tory' thinking received initially?
I think the Conservatives were hugely receptive. David
Cameron sort of launched me twice, at Demos and then with
ResPublica: which I'm very grateful to him for.
I think there's a huge appetite for the ideas, though very few
people like the phrase 'red Tory'…
Well, it's got 'red' in it. It's really as simple as
that. But I think that actually, you know, the influence of the
book has been remarkable. Everybody's read it, not just in Britain
but around the world. I've visited America quite a few times and
people there really like the ideas, so we are writing a US version
You know, the only reason we've got so far - and boy, have we got
far! Imagine if I'd published this, like, 10 years ago! I'd be a
nice little footnote in good people's reading lists and that's it.
Whereas now - and I'm not saying this in a boastful way - we're
consulted by virtually every European government, and in the East
and in Latin America. I'm going to Australia again soon, and
America. These ideas have gone global already - and ideas only go
global when you capture something, an intuition that people have
had [before] but have never previously articulated.
People are always keen to say that, you know, if you ever had
influence (which they doubt) you certainly don't have it now -
that's the nature of these things. I'm not the only one doing this
type of thinking, but I think the reality is, if you look at the
reports we've published at ResPublica, most of them have made it
into government policy in some way, shape or form - and if they
haven't, the Labour Party's adopted them. Everything that was in
Red Tory, everything that was kind of laughed at or vilified, most
of it's become law.
At Demos, you directed the Progressive Conservatism
Project very briefly. Why did you not stay there?
Demos then was led by a very gifted thinker, but it saw
itself at that time as a liberal think-tank and my thinking is
profoundly anti-liberal. So, there was no kind of future there
for… And so, offered the opportunity to set up by myself, I did.
Which has been a complete nightmare - but, as difficult as it's
been, [ResPublica] has still been a remarkable success. I think
undoubtedly we are now in the front rank of think-tanks.
For me, it is uncomfortable being a new thinker on the right,
because you're attacked by both sides - and I am, we are. But I
take most of that as a political com-pliment. I think that unless
we advance our thinking and push it further, we're not going to
serve our country. And I would like to see similar developments on
the left, you know? Because if we stay in the same old, tired 1980s
models - state versus market - I'm afraid we're only going to go
(I think Demos will probably now go 'blue Labour', which is
fantastic. I think its proper role is to help the Labour Party
break from certain liberal prejudices, and I wish it well.)
What role do you think Christian thought - or the church -
can realistically play in our politics?
For me, Christianity is part of what has advanced the
West. In the 10th century, it rescued us from our own little hell -
it was the church, through cultural and social revolution, that
got people to believe in new taboos, new structures of morality,
and essentially disarmed Europe; and also gave us kind of a new
model for human flourishing. I think the great disaster for the
church (I take this from Charles Taylor) is that at some point it
went inside the head and started being about restricting sexual
behaviour. It's almost as if it gave up on the world. It
paralleled Ockham's retreat and said: We're not about celebration,
we're not about meeting human need, we're not about anything -
except this rather strange Protestant fetishisation of sex. And, as
a result, people stopped engaging with the church.
I've long advocated that the new role for Christianity isn't to
talk about morality in an oppressive way but to actually create new
vehicles to create good or moral or religious options in every
field, from social care to economic development to building homes
to aesthetics to whatever you care to name. Because what I'd like
to see is the church reinvolved at every level in the public
sphere, from banking to helping communities get the buses running
In that sense, I think the church can restore its original
mission, which is (to put it in a silly way) to make the world a
better place. And you don't do that just by trying to make other
people's minds like your own; you do it by creating options for
others. I think that's really the mission for Christianity, and I
think, sort of, it's beginning to achieve it again. Catholic
social teaching, Anglican social teaching, evangelical practices -
particularly in America - are now hugely influential; they're
making all sorts of difference.
The church hasn't had a good history [recently] in Britain, let's
be honest. You know, it's been relegated, it's been denigrated and
it's been humiliated. But, for me, it now has an incredible
opportunity in Britain. I think 'the Big Society' is a door the
church should walk through: it can help create new options for
itself and for human beings, and I think it should do so.
And, crucially, what the church needs to do is stop being
Clearly, you feel that the wind is behind you and your
thinking. Where do you think we are going to end up?
That's a good question. I mean, never underestimate the
power of orthodoxy and inertia!
There's no necessity in history, so there's no guarantee we'll win
- at all - but what there is, clearly, is a bankruptcy of the other
options. My sense is that the 1980s ideologies of both left and
right will continue to fail. I think the more we follow these old
ideologies, the more trouble we'll be in and the more people will
turn to ideas such as we argue for and represent. So, in that
sense the current crisis is a huge opportunity for the
intellectual, cultural, economic and social renewal of our
country, and, I think, of the West. If the church and other people
start to associate, use some of our ideas and start to build
alternatives, that's when the balance tips. Once we have practical
alternatives that start to deliver what people really want, I think
it will all shift.
I think that this government has done a lot of good things - the
Localism Bill, public-sector mutualisation, 'the Big Society', all
of these things are good and I think they're almost beyond party
politics. I think the Prime Minister is achieving his legacy here,
because I think the best of Labour will pick it up if - when - they
govern again. In that sense, I think there are real reasons for
optimism. I feel that the ideas that I, and many others, represent
are running well in a race that's still being led by the orthodox
positions, but I think we're coming up the inside track.