We need a commitment that enfranchises our ancestors and endows our heirs
What is the job of society? There is a modern delusion that we are born pure, and then corrupted by an unfair world. But surely the plain truth is that we are born greedy, narcissistic and violent. That’s why laissez-faire doesn’t work any more than big government. Left entirely to ourselves, individuals will exploit, slack off, rent-seek, and cheat.
The job of society is to teach us to temper these impulses and to train us in a different set of habits. What habits are these? The old times called them the virtues: the practices that human beings are uniquely good at, like courage, temperance, fortitude, creativity, compassion and shrewdness. The virtues make us happy and great, and make life better for everyone else. They are, in Edward Skidelsky’s great phrase, ‘the excellences of the species, as strength is to the lion, or speed to the horse.’ But unlike natural animal power, human virtues need deliberate inculcation.
Government can’t make better people. What can are the associations we belong to, the connections that give us our identity and sense of self. Most simply, these associations are the family, the community and the nation. These are the schools of virtue.
The purpose of politics is to strengthen the family, the community and the nation so they can exercise their beneficent influence on individuals. How do we do that?
To strengthen the family we need to recover the traditional concept of the oikos, the household economy. Men and women both need the opportunity for a more integrated life. We need more flexible work, closer to home, and a tax system that helps couples. We need childcare and social care subsidies that reflect most people’s desire to keep their children and their elderly parents at home as much as possible. We need to give marriage its proper due, not as a statement of romantic attachment but as a commitment to bring up children together.
To strengthen communities we need a great democratisation of power, to let people take back control of the places they live in. The pandemic has encouraged a more local, more sustainable life, and we must build on this. We need a transformation of public services to create more community-led, more mutual, more human systems for health and welfare and social care. We need tax and planning policy to breathe life into high streets and public spaces, and restore the pub and library and youth club. We need a new ‘economics of place’, including a revived idea of the private business as a force for public good.
To strengthen the nation we need to build on Brexit and exercise the muscles of independence, setting new immigration and trade policies to become, once more, a high-skilled exporting nation.
Independence is not isolation, and ‘sovereignty’ need not mean unilateralism. We have the opportunity to convene partnerships around the great goals of the democratic world, of which reducing climate change is the main one. Yet here nationalism is, paradoxically, most useful. Conservative estimates suggest that by 2050, 50 million Africans could be displaced by rising sea levels. Their own countries will be chronically destabilised, and many people will head north for Europe. Climate change is an ecological tragedy but more immediately it is a threat to the security of nations.
The real ‘green deal’ we need is between Left and Right: to save the planet in return for saving the nation. We need to reduce climate change and engage constructively (and expensively) with the developing world, in order to reduce war, terrorism and mass migration.
The immediate challenge for our nation is of course its constitutional settlement, including the relations of the four nations to the Union. Any referendum on Scottish independence must be deferred until Brexit has settled, Covid is over, and we have the chance for a proper conversation about the distribution of power in these islands.
England, despite being the oldest coherent country in Europe, has no government of its own. Surely this is one reason for our unstable Union, and any constitutional process must consider how to give meaningful expression to English identity.
The job of government is to create the conditions for virtue. It has its work cut out: a new constitutional settlement at home and a new doctrine of ‘environmental nationalism’ abroad; public service reform and a new ‘economics of place’; and a new focus on the household economy, on care, and on family relationships.
All these themes come together in what I call a ‘new social covenant’. We don’t need a ‘social contract’, a transactional arrangement between individuals and the state. A ‘covenant’ is an enduring commitment, extending backwards and forwards in time, which enfranchises our ancestors and endows our heirs. It is founded in a set of understandings about how human beings work, of which the primary one is the simple fact of our relatedness.
Miriam Cates MP and I are launching today the New Social Covenant Unit, which aims to put meat on these bones and nudge our colleagues towards the politics of family, community and nation. You can read a much fuller account of what we mean on our website here, and also sign up to register your support and keep in touch.