We are communitarians, so Miliband can lead us as Cameron can’t

by Jonathan Todd

“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”.

Denis MacShane sought to console speaker Martin by writing to him with the words of Thomas Babington Macaulay at the height of the expenses scandal. But was this quotation really appropriate?

Weren’t the British people right to be aggrieved by elected representatives defrauding them? Aren’t they also legitimately angry with, as Ed Miliband put it, “bankers who caused the global financial crisis” and “those on benefits who were abusing the system because they could work – but didn’t”? And can there be any doubt that the revulsion of the public against the News of the World is justified?

The spikes in outrage against fiddling politicians and phone-hacking journalists, as well as the slower burning resentment at welfare cheats and fat cat financiers, makes a nonsense of Macaulay. The people he mocks instinctively know right from wrong. And in this intuitive grasp we see ourselves for what we are: communitarians.

The philosopher Julian Baggini foreswore ivory towers and spent six months with the people of Rotherham before concluding that this is the philosophy of the English. It was, incidentally, in the same town that Gerry Robinson tried to “fix the NHS” and Jamie Oliver “taught the poor to cook”. This is a worldview that stresses the responsibilities of the individual to the community. Membership of the community entitles rights and privileges but responsibility demands that these be reciprocated.

We are a nation that wants to see itself made up of; hard working families who play by the rules. We want those who play by the rules to be supported and to get on. We want those who don’t to be punished. The ascendency of Thatcherism, with its win-at-whatever-cost individualism, has obscured the extent to which we see ourselves as members of social groups to which we owe allegiance and the execution of responsibility.

Those who can work have a responsibility to do so. Those who can work but don’t should be penalised. Law makers have a responsibility not to be law breakers. Just like everyone else, including journalists and bankers. And they should feel the full force of the law when in breach of it. These professions are, however, held to more exacting standards of responsibility than legal compliance alone. Their integrity demands more than this. The irresponsibility of hacking the phones of grieving families is about much more than breaking the law.

As Ed Miliband’s advisor Greg Beales tweeted last Wednesday: “Today Ed Miliband spoke for the country because David Cameron can’t. Very important moment”. Tony Blair drew applause from a Progress audience last Friday by saying: “Ed Miliband has shown real leadership this week”.

Cameron’s “catastrophic error of judgement in hiring Andy Coulson” ties him to the violators of the communitarian rulebook. Miliband, in contrast, has made himself a tributary for these rules. And followed this through to demands for the requisite punishments: the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the referral of News International’s takeover of BSkyB to the competition commission. In doing so, he gave his leadership its biggest turbo-charge to date.

He had previously enjoyed one of his best days with a speech on responsibility that placed him on the right side of the rulebook on welfare and bankers. By throwing everything he could at News International Miliband generated a much bigger impact than that speech had. But he also took a bigger risk.

Because, beyond the fierce urgency of now, a risk is what being sanguine about schmoozing Murdoch – who will more than likely still be a major media player at the next election – amounts to. But smart politics is about calculated risk-taking – and, in a country of communitarians, respecting the rulebook. If the power of newspapers is as diminished as we are sometimes told and if the public standing of News International continues to decline, Murdoch’s bite shouldn’t be as feared as it has been. If Cameron keeps being on the wrong side of the rulebook, he won’t be the winner that Murdoch always looks to back.

The possibility, although still slim, that Murdoch is a busted flush and Cameron a loser suddenly appears real. If Miliband can maintain his forceful leadership on the issue, capturing the public mood then this will increase. It will require much more than a win in today’s Commons vote called by Labour or in the wider debate opened up by the News International revelations.

This debate threatens a rupture between Cameron and the people – and demonstrates that when Ed connects with popular instincts for right and wrong he can lead.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “We are communitarians, so Miliband can lead us as Cameron can’t”

  1. Frederick James says:

    “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality”

    A cynic might suggest that the egregious MacShane has a vested interest in that proposition.

Leave a Reply