We must recover our capacity for shared sacrifice

by Jonathan Todd

I’ve got taxis to Eccles. I stayed there for a Labour Party conference. In a B&B where a Christmas card signed by the Ron Atkinson era Manchester United squad was framed. This wasn’t vintage chic. It just hadn’t been decorated since 1984. Which was weird. But the Eccles streets weren’t. They were resolutely normal.

Morrissey’s autobiography begins with him describing his childhood as “streets upon streets upon streets”. The unexceptional Eccles streets were part of this youth’s tapestry. Streets like so many other streets. As a taxi driver from Eccles, Alan Henning undertook an unremarkable occupation on unremarkable streets. He died seeking to do something remarkable: relieving Syria’s stricken.

I felt the most powerful words in Ed Miliband’s conference speech concerned “someone from just down the road from here”. Henning was an everyman figure, in circumstances beyond comprehension. I’d have liked Miliband to move from this strong opening to a detailed account of how ISIL should be countered and an appraisal of Britain’s place in the world. How the man who would be King sees us amid ISIL, Putin and China. Instead he concluded a brief section on ISIL by deferring to UN, effectively granting Russia and China a veto over us even as they refuse to be checked by the UN.

Little is easy about defeating ISIL. Or bringing wider Middle East peace. Or order to a world showing signs not so much of a liberal happy ever after, as anticipated by Francis Fukuyama in 1992’s The End of History, but political decay, as he rightly worries about in his newly published tome. In this context, only a fool would deny the wisdom of J. K. Galbraith’s dictum that politics consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. But Miliband should at least communicate how he discerns them.

Miliband invariably seems to be saying that he’d identify the little man and the big man and line up behind the little man. Except he wouldn’t be so boorish as to cast the choice in such gender loaded terms. On occasion, like when defending the victims of phone hacking, this posture has worked. But it risks absurdity when overdone.

The Bagehot column in the Economist, for example, observed that when he called the apprentice on stage with him at party conference “one of the lucky few”, he spoke, “as if she had survived an atrocity”. The UK, even under a dastardly Tory PM, just isn’t that terrible. And most people have enough perspective to know this. It’s the rest of the world that most worries me. That place that hasn’t really been much dwelt on at any of the party conferences. The UK might be ok but it’s frustratingly parochial.

Miliband’s rhetoric can also be seduced by what Bertrand Russell called “the fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed”. His remarks leave an impression of various dichotomies. In denouncing market failure but less frequently castigating government failure, we have a sense of the good public sector versus the bad private sector. The private sector bifurcates into producers and predators. The social classes split between those to be chided, such as bankers and others with the temerity to try to make a living in industries that the righteous haven’t yet outlawed, and those who can do no wrong, like every one of the 1.7 million NHS workers.

Miliband speaks of “the principle of together” but can appear to divide the country in two: mates of the Tory government and those oppressed by this government. And all that is required to liberate the oppressed is to change this government. But as Stephen Bush noted when reviewing the latest book by Owen Jones, the high priest of Russell’s fallacy, “not everything wrong with Britain today can be put down to the schemes of the right or the dangerous flexibility of the moderate left”.

Only by moving beyond this fallacy we will recover what a better tomorrow requires: shared sacrifice. We sacrifice current consumption to create room for public investment. While it’s vital that we fashion fiscal space for rising public investment, this alone won’t create desired change. The difficult truth is that improved public services demand both service users and providers sacrifice more. Parents giving up their time to read to their children, as well as teachers going the extra mile. Neighbours looking out for each other, in addition to community policing. All of us making healthily choices, not just passively depending on the NHS.

We all must be the change that Labour wants to see. “To do difficult things,” Henry Kissinger claims in an interview in the current Prospect magazine, “a society has to be willing to sacrifice or accept limitations on itself in the name of its future”. It’s not just the unspeakable carnage that we’ve allowed the 10,000 fighters of ISIL – a puny force in the grand scheme of things – to advance in such a way that makes me worry we’ve lost this capacity. It is also political leadership that hides behind disingenuous caricature and shirks from even asking for this sacrifice, let alone requiring it or inspiring it by their example.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut      

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One Response to “We must recover our capacity for shared sacrifice”

  1. Tafia says:

    If you feel as strongly as you claim, you would by now have gone across and joined the FSA or a similar western-backed opposition groups and be merrily fighting ISIS or whatever name it has this week.

    The fact that you not only haven’t, but make no effort to either speaks volumes.

    Just another pointless armchair warrior.

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