Monday, 3 August 2009

The broken society / Morality in politics


    My favourite post in the bloggers circle so far is one on the Bleeding Heart Show: the ‘Broken Society’ vs ‘Back to Basics’.

Comparing David Cameron’s reflections on the ‘broken society’ with John Major’s earlier attempts to get ‘back to basics’, blogger Neil Robertson suggests Cameron’s strategy is likely to be more successful, given that it avoids the potential for the government being seen as hypocritical:

“Where Major’s rhetoric was fogged-over by vague moralising about returning to the ‘neighbourliness, decency & courtesy’ of the past, Cameron is more precise, identifying the specific symptoms of the ‘Broken Society’ and arguing that only by reducing them can we have a happier, more equitable future. Significantly, all of the social evils he lists (however indirectly) either costs the state money or causes harm to law-abiding people, and he is not asking for anything more from the British people than those things most of us already do…

Just as Major & Cameron’s ideas are framed very differently, I suspect the consequences of the two speeches will also be very different. Thanks to the fuzziness with which ‘Back to Basics’ was sold, Major unwittingly committed the Conservatives to leading the country to a kind of moral reformation. Unfortunately for him, by doing so it became fair game to scrutinise the character of his cabinet, and when a number of those ministers failed to stand up to that scrutiny, it fatally undermined the project he was trying to sell.”


However, Robertson also refers to an earlier post by Melanchon and suggests:

“By seeking to describe the ‘Broken Society’ only in terms of those ’social evils’ which intrude upon the law-abiding majority, Melanchon essentially argues that Cameron has ripped the morality out of his crusade, creating a campaign which is more transactional than it is rooted in the values of religious conservatism. For him, the party isn’t calling for social change because it is moral and good; merely because it will save the state money & make us a little safer.”


There are a number of great points in this.  The point about hypocrisy is definitely right and Cameron’s approach to societal renewal is definitely safer.  But I do wonder, given further deterioration of societal mores and connection since the early 1990s, whether this is now enough?

The debate takes me back a couple of week to the arguments expressed by Michael Sandel in the second of the BBC’s Reith lectures (also see my post on the first of these).

Reviewing two hotly contested contemporary issue: the question of surrogacy, and same sex marriage, Sandel suggests that moral and religious arguments should play a role in political discourse and in justifying laws.  He notes:

“Many people shudder at the prospect. ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’, they ask, ‘to bring morality and religion into politics? Isn’t it safer for a government to try to be neutral and avoid taking sides on the moral and religious convictions its citizens espouse?’ I say no, not necessarily, for two reasons. First, it’s often not possible for government to be neutral on substantive moral questions / it’s not always possible to decide questions of justice and rights without resolving substantive moral questions; and, second, the attempt to do so can make for an impoverished public discourse / even where it may be possible, it may not be desirable.


Reith’s argues that we shouldn’t try to avoid morale issues but should take the opportunity to debate these factors publically.  So perhaps Cameron is being politically smart, but may also be missing an opportunity by stressing redistribution of power and the need for more personal responsibility, political transparency etc.

I still find John Major’s speech resonates strongly with me – and I think that introduced differently, with more focus on serious debate / richer discourse, it could have resulted in different conclusions too.

From my own perspective, the question that arises is whether we perhaps need to have some back to basics debates within our organisations as well – taking one topical issue for example, on what do managers and employees collectively believe is a justifiable salary differential?

These wouldn’t be easy debates to have, but implemented well, might result in more committed, aligned workforces.


Photo credit: Adrian Pingstone


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