Citizens of Nowhere: A Plea for a ‘Red Tory’ Synthesis

As this year shuffles towards its end, I keep on returning to Teresa May’s controversial comments back in September that:“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” I continue to struggle with these remarks, in part because they seem to diagnose a profound truth about the world we live in, but opt for the wrong remedy. True, the processes of Global Capital have left many feeling nomadic, without stability or a distinctive common life. Many of our corporations feel no loyalty to the country in which they reside, but instead, attempt to increase their advantage in a race for profits, a race which leaves an increasing number of their workers underpaid and poor. May’s answer is to reassert the ‘nation’ to the detriment of those in the nation who feel that they owe no allegiance to national flags and borders. These are the untrustworthy ‘liberal elites’ of populist rhetoric who care more about international trade deals, saving the rainforests or the goings-on at the latest EU summit, rather than the single parent in Barnsley struggling to the pay the bills. May’s use of this kind of duality was perhaps an understandable rhetorical flourish after the bolt of nativism unleashed during the Referendum campaign, but it reveals a potentially dangerous fissure which now defines our politics. We are being forced to choose between the world and our own shores, compelled to either root in our own soil or set ourselves adrift. Those readers who are sensitive to historical precedent might notice the striking similarity between such a poisonous choice and demagogic public discourse of Europe in the 1930s. In that long decade before the storm, political opinion was continually being pushed towards clear-cut solutions, in the form of the International revolution or a racist/nationalist revival. History records the outcome of that experiment in extremes. The nationalist and communist utopias were models of the same nightmare. And why? Because any genuinely humane politics i.e. one which can sustain the full diversity of human experience and character is one in which the cosmopolitan and the nativist impulses are aligned. Both represent deep needs in the human psyche and both must be sustained if politics is to be elastic enough to meet the abiding needs of people.

What might such a politics look like? A few years ago, I was convening a conference at the University of Manchester on the hot topic of post-liberalism. In the audience, there were many who were tired of the bland centrism of modern British politics. In a society of rapid change, they hungered for a politics which adequately expressed people’s need to belong. Amid a seemingly faceless world, there was the acknowledgment that many had been stripped of security and dignity. Some participants stressed the need to curb immigration, others to ‘throw out’ the language of human rights. But did such reflexes, really offer the prospect of something better? In the evening, we had the pleasure of welcoming to the conference via Skype, Professor Ron Dart and Dr. Brad Jersek, both prolific apologists of the Canadian Tory tradition. ‘Red’ because like the Left, such a politics seeks the promulgation of social and economic justice. ‘Tory’ because it upholds community, tradition, and locality as key ingredients of a flourishing human life.  While Ron and Brad were clear that Red Toryism was an emergent property of Canadian Anglicanism, it was not a sectarian or overly chauvinistic creed. Rather, it attempted to combine the longing for the cosmopolitan (the search for a universal justice) with the recurrent human need for roots and belonging.  In this formulation, one is a citizen of a given state but also a citizen of the world. Behind this synthesis was Ron and Brad’s practice of seeing politics sub species aeternitatis. As Ron puts it:

(Red) Tories are convinced that the foundation stones of a good state are built with bricks of ethical firmness and religious depth. The religious institutions that bear the ancient myths, memories and symbols of the community past and present are imperfect, but to negate, ignore or destroy such institutions is to cut ourselves off from the deeper wisdom of the past. The Anglicans have often been called the Tories at prayer, and there might be much more in this cryptic statement than has been probed…. Just as the spirit of historic religion needs the ship of the institution to carry it, so the Tory vision of politics needs the ship of the political party to bring the philosophic vision into being. In short, Tories do not spurn the old institutions that carry their ideas into material form. Those who separate ideals and ideas from the institutions that embody such ideas are most short sighted and doomed to unfulfilled longings.

Image result for Ron DartAccording to their account, political institutions are not Hobbesian contrivances for meeting immediate needs, but cultural attempts to participate in the life and order of eternity. For Ron and Brad, a Red Tory is chiefly someone who seeks the deep unity between cultural institutions and eternal values. This attitude has a long philosophical pedigree, from Plato’s correspondence between the structure of the righteous soul and the organisation of the just city to Simone Weil’s ‘declaration of duties towards mankind’. Here the world of time is understood as a mirror of God’s timeless presence. History is not merely a series of unhappy accidents, but the way in which the world of Spirit becomes concrete.  Anything we build here in the temporal world has its analog in another realm of divine mercy: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18). Per this reading of public life, whenever a given cultural form seeks general justice, peace, and nobility of purpose, it transcends its own historical location and becomes a vessel for the souls of the citizenry to communicate with the Creator who is in love with the world of time.  In this vein, it is not a matter of embracing what is universal at the expense of particularity (or shunning the native at the expense of the cosmopolitan). It is rather a matter of bringing these forces together in a single national life. It is for this reason that Red Toryism, both assured us, celebrates Canada’s rich tradition of multiculturalism. The Canadian government’s decision earlier this year to resettle some 39,000 Syrian refugees seems very much in the spirit of such a theological politics. To seek eternity in the collider scope of temporality means seeking unity in difference, and welcoming the stranger as the face of Christ. By opening up their borders to those in need, people became better Canadians, their moral values on a firmer footing.

Image result for Jesus icon refugeeThis is precisely the kind of generous national vision which animates the progressive politics of modern Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party in the British Isles. While the British National Party and the UK Independence Party premise their political activity upon multiple exclusions (based on ethnic, political or continental identity) for progressive nationalists, radical hospitality doesn’t mean losing one’s national story. Rather, it means opening a new chapter in a community’s story, a community growing towards unity and liberality. As the former’s party constitution puts it, the goal of Plaid is to ‘build a national community based on equal citizenship, respect for different traditions and cultures and the equal worth of all individuals, whatever their race, nationality, gender, colour, creed, sexuality, age, ability or social background’ (2.3). In such a generous settlement there is no question of affirming what is universal while denying the role of what is historical and contingent. Both are to be held in perfect balance. Just as a universal God is made known in the life of a specific community (Israel) and person (Jesus Christ), so the contours of human culture should be a conduit for what is shared and eternal. Any mode of national or ethnic experience which glorifies itself is merely a phantom which has forgotten its vocation of service to creation.  We are one world and should never pull up the drawbridge against those who are brothers and sisters, estranged by distance, but equal in dignity. Conversely, it is unrealistic, and even destructive to attempt to dismantle specific institutions that people have built up over the centuries. Refusal of contingency is a fertile soil for insensitivities of all kinds, everything from cultural chauvinism (shown to those who are insufficiently cosmopolitan) to the erasure of beauty and character from our environment. The world becomes a giant shop-window, peppered with car-parks and clone towns. People are stripped of their unique stories (their loyalties, affections, and homes) and become nothing but one-dimensional consumers.

Today, these are the true citizens of nowhere, but it seems unlikely that May’s Blue Tory Party is going to challenge such dispossession. This is the party that directs its bile towards an undemocratic, bossy, and rootless Europe, yet it is quite content to see people sink into homegrown rootlessness, through poverty and meaningless. Such conservatives dislike the thought of power-hungry European officials overburdening British businesses with regulation, but are altogether more relaxed about the burdens carried by those on zero-hours contracts. There seems little evidence that May’s political imagination extends far enough to fully appreciate this contradiction.  If she does see it, there is an equal lack of evidence that she wishes to do a great deal about it (except a few fine words). There is plentiful evidence however that she is willing to exploit anti-cosmopolitan sentiment to connect with electors and her party.

This may be smart politics but it will do little to heal the country after the referendum result. It may even push us further down the post-truth rabbit-hole, a world in which poisons bigotry becomes the unquestioned dogma of our time. But we must resist such siren calls, no matter how ‘respectable’ they may become in the year ahead. It is certain that 2017 will bring fresh exhortations to turn our backs on the world.  But if we are to build a humane politics of roots and hospitality, we must resist the tide. Instead of allowing ourselves to fall into an extreme posture which merely puts the native up against the cosmopolitan, we must seek out a just politics of synthesis. What we need to do through own language, practices, and traditions, is to give space to multiple ‘others’ (living a life which can make the world kinder, more just, ever more worthy of our most cherished ideals). Instead of giving up on universal human rights, multiculturalism, or European co-operation we need to enculturate these things in terms of our own story. We need to apply these concepts so that it gives citizens a stake in a shared destiny, a destiny which serves more than ourselves.  If we diminish either particularity or universality in our search for the Good, we will continually find ourselves in difficulty. We need both a sense of home and a radical welcome to the world beyond our walls. This is the core insight of the Red Tory tradition. We serve our own culture’s interests best when we are hospitable, and look beyond our shores. We become people of ‘somewhere’ when we acknowledge our duty to everywhere. We build up a sublime form of citizenship when we understand our belonging in the context of the human family and eternal love from which we spring.  When done in the context of prayerful openness to God and fellow, our desire for roots becomes a springboard for a deeper kind of unity. In the practice of building a home for ourselves, we long that all should be at home.

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2 thoughts on “Citizens of Nowhere: A Plea for a ‘Red Tory’ Synthesis

  1. Well said – my own political position expressed so succinctly. The problem with the post-enlightenment liberal project is that it does not recognise us as persons in relationships, merely as members of a society. We can only truly welcome the stranger into our country and community and home if we have a country and community and home that we can identify with – that is ‘ours’.
    The problem we have is that of fear which leads to insecurity and the feeling that we need to protect our country and community and home from the threat of change. We can only ‘long that all should be at home’ if we are free from fear – if we have faith that there can be a home for all, from which we then discover that the stranger brings new life, as the two disciples fund on the road to Emmaus.
    However, I have a political problem with the idea of ‘Red Tory’. Firstly, such a concept exists in UK politics as well, with Philip Blond and his book “Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It” (2010). This was considered to be the driving force behind David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative. ‘Big Society’ has, so it seems, disappeared from British politics, and I believe the reason for this was our class system: the problem with the Tories is that they represent the upper classes, and the upper classes believe that they have a monopoly on culture and want to denigrate, for instance, the Northern, Scottish and Working Class culture which forms my own roots – the home I build for myself – in favour of their own ideal of culture as exemplified by Matthew Arnold at a time (1867-8) when the extension of the franchise to all men galvanised the Tories under Disraeli into a previous attempt at cultural imposition: ‘One Nation Toryism’.
    So I self-identify politically as a ‘Social Liberal’, which would mean I would bump up against the likes of Philip Blond in the political centre, but with a liberal interpretation of society and culture which would give equal value to my own background. However, typical social liberalism, including so much of liberal Christian theology, which sprung up at the same time at the end of the 19th Century, falls into the trap you so eloquently describe above: We fear that being citizens of this particular place with this particular culture will set us against the other in our midst, and so prefer to be citizens of nowhere with an anodyne generic culture which in the end has nothing to offer anyone.
    The answer is to let go of ourselves – to replace fear with faith and follow the injunction of Jesus Christ:
    “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
    Our culture and the identity that we get form it is not ours to possess, but is the shared reality of our interrelationships, including with the stranger standing at our door.

  2. Thanks for these wonderful thoughts Gordon. I think what was so fascinating about my meeting with Ron and Brad was their insistence that Red Toryism (as understood in its Canadian context) was only tangentially related to Philip Blond’s ‘Red Tory project. Indeed Ron argued that it represented a bastardisation of the concept Indeed, it was stressed to me that Red Tories in Canada believe in a big high-tax state, in contrast to the voluntarism of ‘the Big Society’. What I find so interesting about both the categories of ‘Red Tory’ and ‘Social Liberal’ is that they are forms of conscious fusion. Red Toryism combines a kind of Hegelian insistence on the self, formed within a given community, while claiming that such inclusion should be based upon economic and social justice. ‘Social liberalism’ is a fusion of the old liberal creed of individual autonomy and freedom, combined with the complex economic realities of the 20th century. It attempts to combine personal freedom with social cohesion. In an age of simplistic political dogmas, perhaps this is what we need. We need to reconcile our deepest ideals, rather than choosing between flat alternatives. Red Toryism is one path, Social Liberalism is another.

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