By the end of 2011, commentators had reached a consensus that David Cameron had failed to produce a coherent domestic agenda, beyond George Osborne’s strategy for the recession and Michael Gove’s activism in schools. The ‘Big Society’, many concluded, had lost its way and should be given a quiet burial, confined to the dustbin policies of history, like Tony Blair’s abortive ‘third way’.
In the Politics of Optimism, published today by Policy Exchange, I argue that the Big Society is not dead. It must still be the defining idea of the government. Its comparative failure to achieve traction to date is not because of inadequate communication, as the Public Administration Select Committee suggested last month. It is because of inadequate substance. The government has let itself toy around with micro thinkers like Richard Thaler with his Nudge thesis, or David Brooks with The Social Animal, and has given insufficient credit to truly profound and significant thinkers.
I argue that the Big Society platform needs to be reconstructed on the basis of four sturdy legs: proactive as opposed to reactive government policy, optimism, trustworthiness and ‘goodness’. It is the last which is my concern here.
Conservative governments have been wary of articulating moral agendas, with the ever-watchful media ready to pounce on anything that smacks of hypocrisy. John Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign, launched at the 1993 Tory party conference, was thus rendered a laughing stock. Yet government is nothing if it is not asserting moral imperatives and if it is not trying to act in a moral way – even if some of its lieutenants will fall short of the standards that it advocates. Policy needs to be grounded upon an uplifting and positive conception of human nature, which stresses the ‘goodness’ of man, and which attempts to bring about outcomes that improve the quality of human experience and communal life.
The novelist and philosopher, Iris Murdoch, articulated this case persuasively in a little known book The Sovereignty of Good, published in 1970. Plato and Aristotle were the main influences on her thesis, which was written in reaction to much of contemporary moral and political philosophy. She argues that good habits will produce good actions across society, and she advocates the value of stressing ‘goodness’ throughout society, not only for children when being educated, but equally by adults when taking decisions which affect all of us.
Harvard Professor Howard Gardiner makes a similar case in his new book, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed. He champions the three virtues as the necessary foundations for government and society in the 21st century. The test for mankind in the 21st century, he says, is to benefit not just ‘numero uno, or your neighbours, but a wider public’. As Jeffrey Sachs puts it in his new book, The Price of Civilisation, ‘We need to reconceive the idea of a good society in the early 21st century and find a creative path towards it. Most important, we need to be ready to pay the price of civilisation through multiple acts of good citizenship’. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the most penetrating analyst today of contemporary Britain, writes similarly about the need to ground government and society in ethical practice. Writers such as Murdoch, Gardiner and Sacks should be read more in government: they have more to offer than some of the authors who have breezed in and out of the door of Number 10. From the village school to Downing Street, the importance of goodness should be stressed as a core quality to guide human action.
Peter Riddell in his book In Defence of Politicians produced a necessary riposte to the perception that all politicians are sleazy. Most politicians are not bad people, but far too many have acted poorly and the reluctance far too many of them to tell the truth is dispiriting.
The government should clean up politics, with a strong lead from the top, and restore trust in the body politic. It should institute a scheme for a thousand ambassadors who have achieved distinction in their fields, and who lead exemplary lives. They should be charged with responsibility for visiting schools and communities, to inspire young and old with a vision about how to pursue a better life, and how greed and poor behaviour are not necessary for success. A model exists in the BBC’s Robert Peston, who has established a successful programme for celebrated figures to talk in state schools.
Grounding the Big Society in goodness will excite mirth, ridicule and hostility. It will also provide leadership. It is leadership that we badly need to see in 2012.
Anthony Seldon’s The Politics of Optimism published today by Policy Exchange.