This week, a group of bishops from the Church of England released an open letter to politicians, in which they called for the parties to set out a “moral vision” for Britain, creating the same sense of change that was felt in 1945 and 1979. The bishops’ ideas of what this moral vision should entail may be different from what many would like, and is certainly more partisan than they made it out to be, but they are not wrong in arguing for one. With apathy high and discontent higher, this general election is in desperate need of a purpose bigger than deciding seats on May 7th. The country should use the next 80 days to have an encapsulating debate about who we are, who we’d like to be, and how best to get there. We witnessed it in Scotland over the summer – a nation taken over by the buzz of deciding its future – and it was a sight to see.
This year, I have struggled through the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, among others. It has, I admit, been tough, and not the most enjoyable part of my politics degree. But if their ideas seem outdated, their writing stuffy and their relevance somewhat limited, there is one thing we can learn from these brilliant minds – a willingness, and in some cases a compulsion, to share their vision for a better society, no matter what that may entail. The public intellectuals of today (for that is what these men were) are, by comparison, parochial, although a talk on atheism, humanism and secularism by AC Grayling, which I attended recently, offered some hope. He argued, with passion and compassion, for a morality based on personal choice and respect for the choices of others.
I guess that what I’d really like to see is a politics in which a party’s leader can appeal to people like Grayling in their discussions with the public, and not be labelled an intellectual snob by the press. Instead, we must put up with soundbite populism, where Ed Miliband is judged on his ability to eat a bacon sandwich, not his interpretation of social democracy and its place in the 21st century. This is the climate in which Ukip gets away with gaffe after gaffe after gaffe, simply because no one expects any better. They can poll at 15% on the merits of Farage’s drinking habit, and although the broadsheets lament it, they don’t offer anything as an alternative.
So for what it’s worth: here’s my vision – the one that I wish someone would articulate to the public.
It starts off with a return to some of the great liberal thinkers mentioned above, and a concerted effort to modernise their once-groundbreaking ideas. JS Mill’s works should be the starting point of politics in any serious liberal democracy. Freedom of speech should be an absolute, just as he wrote; it is the only way to ensure that we’re going in the right direction. Individuality should be celebrated – and money poured into education, so that equality of opportunity becomes about raising the troughs, not levelling the crests. Every child should be viewed as a bundle of potential – especially, as Mill showed us, girls, who continue to miss out at so many stages of life.
And if we’re going to extend the liberal vision throughout the century, we need to renew the determination with which we fight society’s greatest injustices. The 20th century was the time of political rights – the spread of democracy to 120 countries (according to Freedom House), women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. This should be the century of social rights – of women being free to control their own bodies, of LGBT+ couples’ being free to show affection in public without fear, of toleration of those with whom the majority disagrees. Instead of just vaguely hoping for some progress, wider society should harness the power and passion of hundreds of NGOs and campaign groups and really put some effort into creating positive change.
The trickier questions arise when we look outside our own culture and ask ourselves if we should expect others to honour these rights (and if we should enforce them – and how), or whether we should value our differences. On this I am still undecided – I want little girls to go to school no matter where they are born, but I am also all too aware that neo-imperialism is a nasty phenomenon and that you can’t force the adoption of values. This debate is perhaps the most central of our time, so why can’t we have it? After Paris and Copenhagen, it is more urgent than ever, as we work out just how to be a truly multicultural society.
Most questions in politics no longer have black and white answers; everything is a question of degrees. This means that we cannot simply entrench ourselves in opposing opinions and shout across the chamber – whether in the House of Commons or in the forum of public debate. Dialogue and consensus are necessary for progress. The bishops were right, politicians need to set out a new moral vision. We, as citizens, need to steer them in the right direction.