02/11/2011 06:14 GMT | Updated 31/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Morality and Politics

Cambridge History Student and Varsity journalist Tom Belger writes on morality in modern day politics

When the money runs dry, politicians turn to morality

'A key assumption of modern politics is that we should be left alone to live as we like without being nagged, without fear of moral judgement', the writer Alain de Botton remarked earlier this year. 'It is not thought to be the government's task to promote a vision of how we should act towards one another.'

He may have been right then. I cannot recall much ethical preaching on the part of the last Labour government. It seemed reluctant to make a moral case for its redistributive policies, from working tax credits to EMA. I remember the Conservatives, meanwhile, squirming and backtracking over proposals to incentivise marriage. They feared that a firm moral stance on the best form of relationship might provoke substantial hostility.

De Botton's remarks seem less accurate today, however. Ed Miliband's speeches abound with the language of 'responsibility', 'contribution' and 'values'. He declares the need for a 'something for something' culture. Irresponsible bankers at the top and 'scroungers' at the bottom are railed against in equal measure.

David Cameron is equally keen to talk vice and virtue. He insisted in a recent interview that he was more intent than Miliband on 'cracking down on a something for nothing society'. He stresses the importance of rewarding those who 'do the right thing'. The volunteering aspects of his much-derided 'Big Society' stem from just the sort of 'vision of how we should act towards one another' de Botton felt was lacking.

We are seeing the re-emergence of morality at the centre of political debate. This is a dispiriting development. It is not a question of disagreeable morals, but rather of irrelevance to the bigger picture. Growth is stagnating. Unemployment is at its highest level in 17 years. Public services are disappearing, wages are falling and prices soaring. Global markets wobble, while Europe lurches from crisis to crisis. Our leaders speak of the need for confidence, jobs and growth as though the words themselves will provide them. On the future and the way we will get there they are silent. They have only values with which to win hearts and headlines.

The onset of the financial crisis exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of both main parties. It is this hole they now stuff with morals. The crisis laid bare the scale of the illusion that has reigned supreme since the 1980s. We believed ourselves to be masters of our economic fate. We believed that the unbridled free market would carry us along a glorious path of uninterrupted economic growth. We ignored the extent to which it was based on unsustainable consumer debt, which left households in 2009 'more indebted than those of any other major country in recorded history', according to the Telegraph.

The shattering of these fantasies is a severe blow first and foremost to the Conservatives. Thatcherism has long vied with God for the status of primary religion in their parliamentary ranks. The notion that the Conservatives brought economic salvation to an ailing Britain - through the Thatcherite settlement of the 1980s - has long been central to the party's ideas and to its credibility. This settlement's collapse and our ongoing economic troubles expose it as a flawed system like any other. The idea that it marks a panacea to the recurring evils of stagnation, unemployment and inflation has been entirely discredited. Yet we will no doubt stagger on under the same system. Devoid of economic solutions to the defining crisis of the age, Cameron can shower us only with ethical ones.

Labour stood equally in thrall to the Thatcherite settlement. Indeed, the vast public spending projects on which the party staked its 'Labour' credentials in office rested upon its success. The 11-12 per cent of tax revenue it reaped from a loosely regulated financial sector allowed for extensive investment in education, healthcare and various flagship projects, as I have highlighted elsewhere. As Margaret Thatcher once noted, 'socialism is spending other people's money'.

The party is equally mute on alternative solutions. Today the coffers lie empty. The flimsy foundations of our prosperity have been exposed for all to see. Debt cripples state and society alike. Even the Business Secretary conceded last week at the Cambridge Union that capitalism is in crisis. What does Labour propose for the future of the country? How are we to secure real growth? Is it even feasible? How are we to restrain mass unemployment and inflation? How are we to tackle our gravest social ills without lavish expenditure? As Lenin asked, what is to be done?

Give priority on housing waiting lists to upstanding citizens who contribute to their local communities, proclaims Miliband. Right. Not since the collapse of the post-war settlement in the 1970s has there been such a pressing need and opportunity to rethink the fundamentals. On these grounds, the recent claim by the Marxist Discussion Group at Cambridge University to have signed up more new students than the Conservative Association is to be welcomed, whatever your political persuasion.

When George Soros' father made plans to flee Hungary following the German occupation in 1944, he told his son that when times are abnormal, those who act normal perish. Politicians fiddle, and Rome burns.

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