Have you ever stopped to consider the asymmetry between politics and society? From an early age, our lives are defined by a moral framework which helps us to separate good from evil; to learn from our wrongs and turn them into rights. And yet, we’ve reached a point where our government, the singular most important mechanism for societal progress, is now defined by an absence of morality.
My contention is that we, from the mainstream media to the single voter, need to put morality at the centre of our political considerations. Unless we restore the safeguard of moral accountability in British politics, we risk political barbarism going unchallenged, with responsive, accountable democratic processes becoming a shadow of their former selves.
The lack of moral scrutiny faced by our politicians is (or rather isn’t…) blinding. You wouldn’t let your children go anywhere near them, yet they’re allowed to run the country. Shouldn’t we be concerned, purely on a moral level, that seemingly without consequence prominent politicians can stoke Islamophobia (Boris Johnson), demean gay men as “tank-topped bumboys” (also Johnson), or call black people fuzzies-wuzzies (Michael Gove) and “picanninies with watermelon smiles” (Johnson, again…).
Without moral accountability in our democracy, there is a risk that such views will be somehow legitimised and permit this immoral sentiment refuge in the corridors of power – ready to seep into the day-to-day workings of the country.
Filling the moral vacuum
It is exactly that which I’d like to emphasise. This is less about the immorality of politicians – accounting for every immoral tendency on a personal level is infeasible – but rather our inability as a society to enforce a certain political morality on our government as a whole.
Put simply, British politics exists in a moral vacuum. That needs to change. The question is how.
If we consider the instruments for accountability in politics, we can begin to understand the aforementioned asymmetry between politics and society. That is to say, we enjoy institutional instruments of accountability in parliament or otherwise, but these stand separate from any form of moral imperative that ought to accompany our politics.
The bluntest of political instruments designed to permit a modicum of accountability to, and control by, the public is an election. Populist democracy betrays itself in this regard – a critical appraisal of people and policy on any level, let alone the moral, is neither required to vote for, nor ostensibly required to become prime minister.
Individuals aside, parties would argue that safeguards exist to ensure a level of moral consideration in elections, examples of which include the need to declare sources of funding and to adhere to campaigning laws. While this is true, years of electoral evidence does not suffice to ensure elections are carried out in a morally responsible manner, or that the government legislates in line with the accepted values and moral ideals of the electorate at large.
Just consider how little power the opposition actually has in holding a government to account. Blame Starmer’s Labour –as per the editorial line of the Daily Mail – all you like for being absent, but when a three-line whip and prevarication at the despatch box is all it takes to quash any attempt at parliamentary scrutiny, perhaps our presuppositions about government being accountable to parliament need to be overhauled.
The fourth estate
The media, too, finds itself at the heart of this issue. Can it promote accountability and be objective, when the press is controlled by the ultra-wealthy and foreign-owned? Does the media fail us when it is deterred, or self-censor, from critically exposing what government does or fails to do in our name?
For example, when the British media takes a moral stance, it becomes susceptible to claims of political interference behind which politicians cower to avoid scrutiny. Despite trying their best, James O’Brien and BBC Newsnight fell foul of this in 2015 when investigating the UK government’s role in committing war crimes in Yemen.
We must stop assuming the media will hold our politicians to account when the government and MPs muzzle the media by exploiting the charade of media neutrality, or by giving the views of the ill-informed ‘equal weight’ to those of experts. Just look, for instance, at this report from BBC News which lends equal weight to the intellectual powerhouses of Patel and Johnson and the United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees.
All that has been discussed shows the social responsibility any mass-media organisation has to play their role in ensuring the health of a democracy; something which the current UK media would do well to remember.
Ultimately we have the courts, right?
Wrong. Even the judiciary isn’t allowed to be as effective as we might think. Though it can hold the government to account for the legality of its actions, passing judgement on the morality of its legislation is outside its remit. Judges, themselves, have diverse views and morals. But a moral judgement is incidental, insofar as their raison d’être is to oppose the undermining of the rule of law.
You might think this debate is a zero-sum game. Morality, after all, is an intangible concept that means something different to everyone.
Except we do have the ability to apply morality in the real world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights acts as a shining example of a moral code that translates the intangible value of morality into reality.
In the UK, we see the erosion of parliament’s powers by the executive; institutionalised lying to the house and to the monarch going unchecked, and an absence of a workable moral safeguard. So is it really surprising that conservatism has flourished over the last 12 years?
There is the evidence of moral corrosion all around us. This is not just an observation from a woke-flake like me. Nor is it blind anti-Tory sentiment coming from someone from the radical left. But maybe the Tory policy pedalled by the modern conservative party is immoral on many levels.
Where to begin? Championing welfare policy that quite literally kills people isn’t even the half of it. There’s extending a policy that sends refugees to a country with a track record of torturing and killing political opponents and funding climate destruction by subsidising oil companies who simply don’t need the money. Then there’s facilitation of systemic racism in our policing system with stop and search policies; offering up Londongrad as a refuge for dirty Russian money; and pursuing a public health policy leading to 170,000 deaths from covid, many of which were avoidable.
The list really could go on, but to return to the title of the article, just consider the fact we quite literally have criminals in Clowning, I mean Downing, Street.
Where’s the moral imperative?
Be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers. But after 12 years of conservative rule, we might do well to scrutinise and emphasise morality in British politics. We might realise the value of politicians having to earn a moral mandate, not just a political one, and insist that those must be demonstrated by anyone seeking the privilege of governing the nation.
And so, as we get ready to usher in a ‘new’ era of pseudo-thatcherist conservative rule under Liz Truss, let’s consider the morality of our politicians. Are they respected by those seeking political power? Are we able to judge them accordingly?
We’re running out of time to deal with all the existential challenges society faces. Let’s just hope morality finds its rightful place in British politics before it’s too late.