Interview with Phillip Blond of ResPublica, author of ‘Red Tory’
A while ago, at a Soil Association event in London, I found myself on a panel with Phillip Blond of ResPublica, and was really impressed by his insightful thinking on how politics might best enable the process of localisation. Phillip’s book. ‘Red Tory’ is due to be published in a couple of weeks, and I was delighted that Phillip agreed to do an interview about his thinking.
So, Phillip, perhaps I might start by asking what is ResPublica?
ResPublica was launched officially by David Cameron last year, and what we’re really about is trying to produce, or mainstream, genuinely radical new ideas for changing the current dispensation. In our view the agendas of the old Left and the old Right, those of the last 30 years, have run out of steam. Some were necessary at some point, but neither are delivering now and we need a new political settlement and a new middle ground, and we are interested in crafting with others that vision and talking about how to realise it. That’s really what Respublica is about, our strap line is “changing the terms of the debate” and that’s what we’d like to do”.
Do you distinguish between the terms ‘localism’ and ‘localisation’ and if so, how?
Localisation could be understood as the same sort of big players just adapting acutely to local consumers or local needs, and that’s probably a good thing. That’s a sort of top-down approach becoming more responsive. Localism is a sort of bottom-up approach, with the notion of civic group formation, peer-to-peer networks, civic society, or the big society if you will, forming and increasingly challenging the centralising or top-down agenda from below. It is the latter that I think is the more radical and the more transformative.
What would national government look like if it really aimed to devolve as much power to local communities as possible?
That’s a long and complicated question, and it would involve discussion each sphere, but I certainly think in terms of our present political structure it has to involve local councils and local authorities having genuinely independent revenue-raising capacity, the ability to vary, for instance, the national non-domestic business rate, the ability to generate new forms of revenue and share in those new forms of revenue, if we want to create the city states that really did so much good in the 19th century.
I think outside of the state and the state at the local level is even more interesting work, which is around the formation of citizens’ group, and the formation of civil society that attempt to capture budgets for themselves, in some sense get the public expenditure that previously has been spent, sometimes badly and sometimes inappropriately, and drive it closer to the front line, in order that that front line can start delivering for itself, or those sort of associative groups can start delivering for themselves.
Localism needs a political economy if it is really going to work. I also think that this isn’t just about local groups capturing money, it’s also about creating new models for the private sector, within the private sector that can compete with other models precisely in order to create a genuinely empowered local political economy.
All political leaders talk about the local economy and wax lyrical about it, but when they are in power, it never seems to happen. Why is that?
Because there is no political economy for it. Because one model of the market dominates all others. Go into our town centres, its either charity shops or transnational players, and our local government, our local state, is wholly determined by the central state, so there is no way, either via the state or the market, for the genuinely local sort of formation to take place.
Can economic localism really come about without tackling corporate culture and the Tesco-isation of our culture?
I think tackling the ‘Tesco-isation’, if you put it like that, is part of the answer, but also the dominant supermarket players are also going to be part of the answer. I think the point with supermarkets isn’t that they are going to be eliminated, not least because many people wouldn’t want that, but it is actually getting them to operate differently, and to operate differently in a way that works with locality and with other needs, diversification of the food supply, more localised provision, market making rather than market dominating, and I think everybody will have a role, and they will go from big to small.
We don’t want to get in a position of just defending the small against the big, what we want is all modes present, in a way that one mode doesn’t dominate other modes, so we don’t have a purely local economy, because that isn’t sustainable, nor do we have a purely global economy because that isn’t sustainable. We need the inter-penetration of each order or each sphere by the other.
What degree of subsidiarity is possible do you think?
The highest degree. Because subsidiarity just says that power or decisions must be taken at the level most appropriate, so we’ve got to get the most appropriate level of the most appropriate if you will! I think that we need to go to the highest level of subsidiarity that we can.
In terms of something like food, to look at a practical example, food is one of the most logical thing to localise, but obviously there are very strong systems and forces pulling in the other direction, the pull towards globalisation is very strong, does the move to local food culture come from affecting supply, or building demand?
Well its both isn’t it? We have to create the demand for local supply, and that’s provided it can be hugely popular because people want to buy locally. So I see no reasons why the supermarkets can’t access that local provision, indeed I would imagine that they would want to. So I think it is about both things. It is also about legislation, it’s about ethos, it’s about changing culture, all of that and no doubt probably more as well. The main point, to actually get traction with this, is to show how its a genuinely win-win. There is no point creating a vested interest that is wholly opposed to the changes that need to happen. It’s a process of persuasion and engagement and of demonstration. I also don’t think that one should hold back from bringing about what needs to happen either.
What is your vision of a more localised economy? What would it look like if what you promote came about?
I think it would look like something where the global didn’t destroy the local, and the local was also open to the global. There really is a model for an economy that benefits all, and provided it prices in the externalities and proper competition operates, I see no reason why forms of local provision and local businesses would be uneconomic. Often local businesses are rendered uneconomic because, for example, state subsidies, or state favouritism penalises their business model. I am in favour of an equalisation of benefits given by the state to different business models in order that we can have fair competition and more competition.
I want competition not just within a business model, between, for instance, massive corporates, but also between business models themselves, so that you can have a localised food distribution network competing with a non-localised one. That, I think, is the only way to produce something that really gives you a leveraged change. Too often, the environmental movement has actually gone with something too other or too extreme to peoples’ experiences, which results in it not capturing the political ground. What it’s got to do, and this is the work that you’ve been doing (the Transition movement) is create intermediate structures that people buy into and learn from those intermediate structures that people think works, and then proceed to create other structure that work.
Would a more localised world inevitably be a more happy one?
(Sharp intake of breath followed by a pause). I think it depends. I think it tends to. I think a more localised world will be a more effective one, a more engaged one, with a higher degree of social capital, interaction and engagement, but as I said, there’s no turning the clock back, no opposing globalisation. The point is rather to orient globalisation towards augmenting the local rather than eliminating it. I think that can be done. You don’t want to be in a position of producing a politics that won’t happen….
In Transition we often look at the concept of resilience. The Government sees that as emergency preparedness, but we see it as an opportunity, as a positive thing. Do you have a sense of how the concept of resilience in this more positive take could be designed into policy making?
Yes. I think, as an example, that Post Offices aid community resilience. We need to price in the society that we want and therefore cost the forces that mitigate against it. There are all sorts, industrial resilience, social resilience, personal and so on and so forth. I think all of those really do matter, and we need a much broader account of profit, loss, return, etc. Etc. And a richer matrix in order to bring about the society we want.
What do you see as the role of social entrepreneurs?
I think they are crucial. What I’d like to see is it becoming mainstream because in a way you could argue that its got to become a way that people want to do business, and therefore the gains from that are spread, and the capital that flows into it is greatly increased. If we can create a kind of ‘open guild’ situation for social enterprise, where you don’t have to do things this way but if you do things this way it actually produces very real returns, that in some sense, because they price in externalities that other people don’t , you could say that by the tax system at the moment we are subsidising business models and picking up the pieces, that state is. That’s an interesting thought I think.
How different is the terrain we are moving into over the next 10 years, with the debt crisis and the other challenges. How different a world are we entering, and how is that going to impact on ways in which we bring this kind of localism about?
I think this is new, and is crucial. It is like 1979 in the sense of a paradigm shift, but now we have a collapse of both a left wing narrative and a right wing narrative. Both state and market have collapsed and we are in a profoundly new situation and environment, and this therefore is the chance for a radically new settlement.
Do you get a sense that a future Tory government has any degree of commitment to the ideas you are talking about?
I think potentially yes. All you can do as a think tank is get the ideas out there, but yes I do. Will they go as far as I want them to go possibly not… will they adopt some of what we are arguing for I think possibly so. I think all you can do is make the intellectual, empirical and social case and stand back and wait to see what happens.
What would local government look like if it was best calibrated to facilitate localism, resilience and economic relocalisation?
A very interesting question. It would have to be outward facing, have its priorities set not by the centre, but by the groups that were forming, it would have to become a facilitator not a provider, it would have to platform all the local groups and create the conditions for that platform and for access to that platform, and it would have to in some sense create civil society and enable it to be facilitated.
Do you know of any of those anywhere, is this happening anywhere?
I think it is happening in micro ways already, and it is a matter of gathering of all that, and then trying to reason from it for a new legislative and cultural settlement.