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Time to get back to moral politics

Posted: 11/09/18, Author:

Some reflections on retiring after 35 years of grappling with the ‘system’ – part one

Time to get back to moral politics

It is not clear who first said “what is morally wrong cannot be politically right” – it is claimed to be Abraham Lincoln, Lord Shaftesbury, Daniel O’Connell (19th Century Irish liberation campaigner) or William Gladstone. (I’d opt for Gladstone personally). Whoever it was – they were on to something. Political actions are usually designed to progress the interests of a section of society - at its worst, a narrow section with whom those taking the decision are closely aligned. Politicians will usually argue it is the interests of society as a whole. At its most altruistic, actions further the interests of those with limited power and influence and whose ‘deal’ from society is not what it should be.

For most of my working life, I have been concerned with the latter. We live in a society where power (economic, social or whatever) is unequally distributed. For some, that is no problem – in fact that inequity (the argument goes) is essential if society is to function as people need an incentive to better themselves in order for society and economies to grow. In part I don’t dissent from that. You don’t need to get much beyond Maslow to understand that if people don’t have what they need in life, they will want to get it. Aspiration is a good starting point.

The problem, I would suggest, arises from two things: (i) when the differences in what people have becomes so significant that people are effectively living in different worlds and (ii) when the need to preserve self-advantage legitimises keeping others ‘down’ for reasons of self-interest. By my perception, this is where we are now.

For whatever reason (a deep psycho-analysis would probably provide the explanation), my working life has mainly focused on people who are excluded because of age or disability – but this same analysis also applies around factors such as race, nationality, class etc. Fifteen to twenty years ago, there were grounds for optimism. This is not me making a political point about the early Blair Government (I never voted for him) but a whole range of actions in and around Government then gave a clear indication that society should take action on exclusion. A slightly random list of examples includes:

  • The Human Rights Act
  • The Social Exclusion Unit
  • Sure Start
  • The cross-Government Office for Disability Issues
  • Valuing People, the first genuinely values based DH policy that was driven by people and families
  • The cross-government older people’s focus, including Better Government for Older People
  • The Disability Rights Commission.

Alongside this, I sensed in that period a genuine public desire to be more genuinely inclusive. Helped (and maybe here is the key point) by a significant growth in national wealth and public spending, it was possible to take action to improve the lives of others without the impact being detrimental to those who already had power, wealth and social capital. Initiatives that were achieving progress (like Valuing People and Sure Start) were lauded and local agencies often wanted to be part of showing how people’s lives could change. Genuine representatives of excluded people were often (but not always) part of working out potential ways forward.

Fast forward to 2018 and we are in a different world. Almost all the aforementioned initiatives have ended. Those that continue (like ODI) exist in name only with no real influence. People’s rights are no longer part of the rhetoric of public policy and we have returned to ‘professionals’ taking decisions about others (e.g. the Government’s Social Care Green paper groups). Despite the preamble to the Care Act, public services are generally no longer focusing on life outcomes and we are returning to a paternalistic model of care. (For example, the ageing and older people’s agenda has returned to concern with funding pensions, who pays for residential care and seeing older people as hospital ‘bed blockers’ rather than questions about life).

What has caused the change? Some people might say Party-politics, but I’d suggest something more deep-rooted. The financial crash and resultant ‘austerity’ (for whom?) changed attitudes. When both politicians and people saw they might lose out financially, attitudes towards those excluded from society changed. In order to protect self and group interest, people had to be made into ‘others’ and given less priority. So, whether that was cutting social care spending rather than increasing redistributive taxes, understanding rights as a negative force to so-called ‘British values” (thank you Daily Mail) or building virtual walls around communities (anti-refugee attitudes and, yes, Brexit), the spirit of inclusion from twenty years ago has waned both in politicians and society as a whole.

The rub is that morals are a subjective concept. We have to take a personal stand on what is morally right. For me, it is morally wrong to pursue policies that:

  • Remove money from those in most need of support whilst protecting those who have it to start with
  • Drive people into poverty because of their disability or ‘difference’
  • Increase the powerlessness that excluded people either experience or feel
  • Push people into lifestyles that separate them from the rest of society for financial reasons.

These things are happening right now – whether that is benefit changes, social care cuts, increasing homelessness, the loss of people’s voice or a return to institutional service responses – the social policy agenda is going backwards.

The moral decision (by my definition) involves recognising an urgent need to redistribute both power and resources in society. Politicians, service leaders and ordinary citizens need to listen and engage directly with the voices of those who, right now, are getting a raw deal. That is not happening – and to quote Gladstone, Lincoln, Shaftesbury, O’Connell or whoever – that cannot be politically right. Collectively as a society and certainly with our governing institutions, we need to re-set our moral compass and then act politically.

(As many people most associate my working life with the world of learning disabilities, a second, partner retirement blog will specifically comment on where the learning disability agenda is in 2018).