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Society Rules

You were born in Liverpool – into a working–class family?

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, really.

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 parents?

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 anything.

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 and culturally.

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 sophistry.

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 Taylor to [Alasdair] MacIntyre 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 has passed.

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 metaphysics…

Is that where you first met John Milbank and became involved with Radical Orthodoxy?

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 McKinnon to Grace Davie.

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 [1946], 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 develop there?

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 village?

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 position.

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’…

Why not?

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 now.

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 compliment. 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 downhill.

(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 on time.

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 apologetic.

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.

This interview first appeared in Third Way



Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 5 March 2012


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