It's a pity, this book. There are some useful ideas about economics, politics and society here but there is also a lot wrong with it. I was a little puzzled, before the last General Election, at David Cameron's rabid enthusiasm for the 'Big Society'. I thought some of the ideas were interesting but it all sounded terribly half-baked and naive. Now I know why. It's a shame, because I sympathise with some of Blond's points. His criticisms of the role of the State and of markets in our lives are, in places, cogent and worthwhile. So much of the rest of it, though, left me bewildered at how Blond has achieved the high profile that he has. He must be cruising some kind of chattering-class zeitgeist. That seems to be enough, these days, to generate oodles of media and political interest. The quality of the analysis and ideas appears to be secondary. Was it always like this?
First of all, let no one be deceived by the 'Red Tory' title. This is as Tory an analysis of the working classes and their position as you will get. It's an older Toryism, to be sure, but you can see where his heart lies by considering the following:
1) in a book of 292 pages he devotes one line to the subject of the National Minimum Wage. This measure did a lot to lift some of the poorest workers into a better and more dignified position (and was relentlessly opposed by the Conservatives). If he really wanted to do something to improve incentives to work for benefit claimants then he and Ian Duncan-Smith would advocate the obvious; a significant increase in the National Minimum Wage. His alternatives for increasing the capital of the poor are no substitute, though worth exploring in themselves.
2) Blond never analyses behaviour change amongst the middle and upper classes. He assumes that the problems are all further down the social ladder. It's nice of him to be so concerned but he might have bothered to look at alcohol and other drug use, along with conspicuous consumption, amongst those higher up the social scale. Many of them provide very poor examples to aspire to. Just because they aren't claiming benefits doesn't mean they aren't causing problems.
3) For all his focus on the working classes, he makes two fundamental and patronising errors. Firstly, he writes as though they have all absented themselves from participation in society and most are dependent on the State in some way. This is, effectively, to ignore the majority of the working classes. Secondly, and largely a cause of this, he examines the working classes from the outside, as a 'black box'. His thesis about working-class cultural decline doesn't even bother to find out anything about what the working classes actually do with their time nowadays. It is a fundamentally passive view of the working-classes as victims of the actions of left and right. In that sense, he is guilty of the same objectification of the working classes that he accuses others of. The fact that many working class people are now much more affluent than in the 1950s and therefore making different choices about what to do with their lives seems lost on Blond.
Also, he chooses to actively ignore inconvenient evidence that doesn't suit his argument. He cites Robert Putnam's thesis, in 'Bowling Alone', about the decline of social capital. He then ignores Putnam's dominant conclusion about the cause of this decline, which is the spread of television. Blond is presumably relying on the fact that most politicians and intellectuals these days are too busy to read and won't bother to go to the original source. Intellectual sleight-of-hand is the kindest phrase I can use for that. If he had bothered to take Putnam's thesis seriously he would quickly have discovered that we now watch an average of 28 hours of TV a week in the UK. Moreover, TV-watching is class-related (both extent and content). You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see the connection with the decline of social involvement on multiple fronts since the 1950s.
There is also Blond's tendency to make sweeping generalisations on the basis of little or no cited evidence. He does this everywhere. This culminates in the almost laughable absurdity of his unqualified claim that before our 'moral crisis' "marriage was seen by men as a means towards lawful sexual gratification and by women as a means towards social and financial stability". He's not the first intellectual to issue such idiocies but one struggles to understand how this sort of thing gets past an editor. One imagines Blond struggling mightily to understand why most divorces are initiated by women.
He's also rather coy about what we have lost in the sleek, new, liberal era. He bemoans the loss of taboos but doesn't seem to be willing to share with us which ones he would rather we had kept. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that he doesn't spend much (just a few lines) on the positives of the past few decades. The huge improvements in gay rights and openness about sexuality have been a big plus and to fail to acknowledge that makes his justified criticisms of other aspects of the sexual revolution - those where children are the victims of careless attitudes to family life, for example - seem part of a reactionary mindset when they are, in fact, important points.
Parallel to this, he has the habit of all social doom-mongers of comparing us unfavourably with other countries whilst failing to acknowledge the things we do better. Cultural integration of immigrants in this country is far superior to that in many others and unemployment is far higher in some other European countries than here. Not a word on such positive points will you read in Blond's book.
I would encourage people to read this book. It's by no means a waste of time. It is provocative and exasperating but it's not dull. By God it is sobering, though, to think that this is the sort of thing that's guiding thinking in our country.