Three words that speak volumes

Theresa May has attempted to woo Labour voters by describing her government as providing “a decent, moderate and patriotic programme” that is worthy of their support. These three words speak volumes. They capture exactly why any Labour voter, in fact why any voter with any concern for the future of human wellbeing at all, should NOT support her programme.

The least offensive of these three words is ‘decent’, and I suspect that many people would raise an eyebrow as to why I or anyone could object to it. After all, what is so wrong with being polite and respectable? Well, in itself, nothing, except that even these rather benign attitudes suggest a certain acceptance of the status quo, of doing things in a socially acceptable manner. It is these connotations of ‘decent’ that I object to; the implication that a ‘decent’ person is a person with an ability or desire to conform to social convention, to play by the rules, to not ‘rock the boat’. It is a word that is very British, very conservative, and very backward looking. The problems faced by humanity require the exact opposite attitude; they require people to be provocative, radical and forward looking.

The word ‘moderate’ has similar problems, and is, I suspect, a word that we will hear uttered often by many Conservatives in the coming months. Oliver Letwin, my local (Conservative) MP writes a weekly column in our local paper. A couple of weeks ago he wrote suggesting that the solutions to the complicated and messy problems that dominate our world should be moderate ones, ones located midway between extreme solutions in a similar manner to the ‘golden mean’ of Aristotelian virtue ethics. I have responded to say that for Aristotle virtues were not an end in themselves, but a means to an ultimate end, the greatest good, which he considered to be human flourishing. Life, for Aristotle, was a constant reflection upon the extent to which the exercise of these virtues moved a person towards such flourishing. And whilst no action or decision could be regarded as good or bad in itself, if it prevented someone moving in that direction it was to be avoided.

If we consider human life as a collective enterprise, as Aristotle did, then our flourishing could be regarded as an enterprise that meets the needs of everyone whilst living within the means and limits set by our planet. Our current obsession with economic grown and endless consumerism will clearly exceed these means and limits, and should, therefore, be jettisoned. The resulting adjustments to our lifestyles may well be seen by some (if not many) people as extreme, but they will be absolutely necessary for human flourishing. It is the light of such an analysis that both ‘decency’ and ‘moderation’ fail as guiding attitudes for a political programme.

May’s use of the word ‘patriotic’ extends these problems in other directions. My dictionary describes a patriot as “a person who vigorously supports his (sic) country and its way of life” and patriotism as “devotion to one’s own country and concern for its defence”. Our ‘way of life’ needs to be the subject of a radical reassessment rather than receive our vigorous support, so I will say no more on that aspect for now. What I will add, however, relates to the implication that we need to be devoted to our country and concerned with its defence. Such an attitude may have had a value in the past, when our way of life was threatened by the aggressive nature of other nations and that its defence required passion, sacrifice and solidarity. But not any longer.

Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but times have changed. The threats to our way of life come not from the threatened invasion by the massed troops of Johnny Foreigner, but from run-away climate change, world economic crises, global migration resulting from poverty or war, international terrorism, cyber security, and pandemics. These all pose existential threats to large numbers of humans, if not us all, and are all beyond the power of any national government to deal with. These threats will only be resolved through global cooperation, though the recognition of our global inter-dependence, not through a selfish devotion to our own country. Any concern for the defence of our country must be transformed into a concern for the flourishing of human life across the world.

Those three words uttered by May are words that are hopelessly out-of-date in the 21st century. They are conservative words, words that look back to a time that, for good or bad, will never, can never return. They need to be eradicated from any political programme and replaced by words that inspire us to look forwards to the future and outwards to the whole of humanity, words like radical, progressive and humanitarian.