BY STEWART SLATER
“Distasteful”. “Shameless”. “I will take no lessons from the Prime Minister.”
Just a selection of the terms used by Rachel Reeves as she fired up the outrage bus and set off for the moral high ground to signal her disapproval of the Prime Minister’s rhetorical connection between Brexit and the war in Ukraine the previous day.
Ms. Reeves is not alone in seeking to don the armour of moral self-regard. David Lammy thinks the Downing Street parties were “shameful and disgusting”, while Sajid Javid was “disgraceful” for not announcing an immigration policy in Parliament. Yvette Cooper has, at various points, described the government’s policies on immigration, forced marriages and benefits as “immoral”. Theresa May, perhaps as befits a vicar’s daughter, was never shy about flaunting her moral credentials, repeatedly referencing the “good that government [by which, a cynic might suggest, she really meant herself] can do.” Across the spectrum, politicians are so keen to jump on their high horse that the RSPCA must be tempted to intervene to prevent the poor nag from being over-worked.
While Mrs May may be a Conservative example of the moralising politician, she is a rare one for generally, it is the left which finds it most congenial to flaunt its moral self-certainty. The Labour Party is, by its own lights, “a moral crusade or it is nothing.” Founded to bring about the New Jerusalem, its self image is that of a righteous movement, creating a better world, even if, nowadays, the cakes and ale have been replaced by an Ottolenghi salad. The journalist Mark Lawson wrote an excellent short story about the founding of the S.D.P. in the eighties entitled “The Nice People’s Party”; in Labour’s own mythology, it is “the Good People’s Party”.
Perhaps such self-certainty comes easier to the left because there is evidence that their moral intuitions differ from those on the right. Of the five “moral foundations” cited by theory, they care deeply about two, while having little concern for the others. The right, by contrast, takes a shallower but broader view, giving weight to all five. Judging an action on two criteria rather than five makes reaching a definite answer easier, because there is less chance of the different “foundations” conflicting. An action which violates the “care/harm” principle can be straightforwardly bad for the left, whereas a conservative would find it harder to condemn if it was in keeping with the “Sanctity” foundation.
Certainty, however, comes at a cost. For if you believe you are on a self-evidently righteous crusade, it becomes difficult to explain why anyone would oppose you without considering them morally deformed. To Aneurin Bevan, the Tories were “lower than vermin”, a reference, we might assume, to their moral rather than physical stature. To Angela Rayner, more pithily, but perhaps less elegantly, they are just “scum”. To David Lammy, the European Research Group were “Nazis” before he decided the comparison was “not strong enough”, attempting to change a nation’s trading arrangements obviously being worse than the premeditated, mechanised slaughter of millions. Moralising politicians offer no end of examples of the danger of, like Al Pacino at the end of Scarface, getting high on your own supply.
There is also the danger that if you present yourself as a supremely moral being, you really have to live up to the description. Diane Abbott, mysteriously, was able to reconcile attacking her colleagues who sent their children to fee-paying schools with sending her own son to a …fee-paying school. For none of us is morally pure – “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells us. Those who present themselves as possessing high moral standards run the risk, if they fail to follow through, of appearing hypocritical at best and delusional at worst.
Take Sir Keir Starmer. Integrity is important to him. We know this because he tells us so. Frequently. He is strongly opposed to racism in any form. He took the knee for Black Lives Matter after all. He also served in the shadow cabinet of only the second party in British history found to be “institutionally racist”, but no matter because integrity is important to Sir Keir.
We know national security is a matter of deep concern to him. He always has a Union Flag (sometimes two) in the background when he addresses the nation. He also campaigned to put Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10, a man of whom Jonathan Ashworth said “the machine will move pretty quickly to safeguard security” if he were elected. This was, surely, an honest mistake because integrity is important to Sir Keir.
He is a proud democrat. He also spent years attempting to rerun the largest vote in the country’s history, the outcome of which he disagreed with, but we can overlook that because integrity is important to Sir Keir.
That fate has offered him these opportunities to live up to the principles he touts and he has taken none must surely be accidental. Suggesting that his air of brylcreemed sanctimony is merely a costume, donned every morning along with his well-tailored suit would be uncharitable. For, as we know, integrity is important to Sir Keir.
If politicians’ moral high ground often turns out to be a mole-hill, it can still be rational for them to attempt to claim it. For, as voters, we often make the lazy assumption that good people make good leaders, ignoring the fact that politics is a business of messy compromises and that choosing the lesser evil still involves choosing evil.
There are plenty of examples of good people being elevated to power only to be utterly disastrous. Jimmy Carter is a famously good man. A devout Christian, devoted to his wife, his post-presidential charitable activities won him the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his term in office, featuring the Oil Crisis and the hostage-taking at the embassy in Tehran, is widely seen as a failure. By contrast, David Lloyd George was, in modern terms, a complete wrong ‘un. He had a long term mistress with whom he had a child, was involved in an insider dealing scandal about which he misled the House, and was so personally corrupt that the Honours laws had to be changed when he left office. He also established the welfare state and played a key role in winning World War I. While we might prefer to have the world’s most famous peanut farmer as a spouse or business partner, when it comes to leading the country, the Welsh Wizard wins hands down.
Nor is it merely that virtue does not always equal competence. “Virtue is more to be feared than vice,” Adam Smith tells us, “because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience.” Those who have a strong faith in their own personal rectitude have a strong belief in the righteousness of their actions. Not only will they be inclined to go too far in the pursuit of their policy objectives, they will likely persist in them when evidence of their harm accumulates. Since we all judge ourselves by our intentions, those who never find themselves wanting when weighed in the balance will be more tempted to “torment us…without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Frank Field was, by common consent, one of the most moral men to sit in the House in recent times. Yet, he was not one to flaunt his virtue or proclaim his superiority, letting his deeds do the talking. It might be better if his successors followed his example for being good is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you probably aren’t.
Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.