“The Condition of England Question – and what we might make of the events of August 2011.”
View power-point presentation to accompany lecture at:
My lecture will fall into five parts:
1. A Summer of Discontent.
2. The Condition of England Question.
3. The Parable of The Prodigal Father
4.Duties and Rights, Values and Virtues
5. What we can do.
1. A Summer of Discontent.
This has proved to be a summer of discontent; a season of social disorder and of fragile and floundering economic indicators.
The riots which have disfigured our cities, reports of which have reverberated around the globe, came in the wake of an endless procession of scandals. We have seen the erosion of confidence in our parliamentary institutions, our mass media, our police and our banks. Hardly an institution remains untouched. David Henry Thoreau once said that if we cut down all the trees there will be nowhere left for the birds to sing. At times, during these past few months, the chain saws have been merciless as the great oaks have been felled.
We are entitled to be sickened at the sight of a bleeding boy, attacked and robbed again by those who first appeared to have come to his aid; or the 67-year-old killed because he tried to prevent arson; or the 11-year-old brought before the courts and convicted because, along with thousands of other looters, he exploited the breakdown in law and order. But beyond our shock and anger we must also ask ourselves some deeper questions about the country we have made and the country which we want it to be. If we do not heed this wakeup call and attend to the root problems far worse will visit us in the future. This will involve the renewal of our battered and compromised institutions and require us to reassess how we see ourselves as citizens and how we see our obligations and duties, our responsibilities as well as our rights. It needs two things: different values and a clearer sense of what promotes human wellbeing.
This will involve reaching out to those who are now so alienated. Speaking after the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles -America’s first urban riots – Robert Kennedy said that leaving people socially alienated in urban ghettos had simply led the disaffected to end up “having nothing to do with the rest of us.”We mustn’t make the same mistake. At tube stations in London passengers are often warned to “mind the gap” as the step from carriage to platform. It’s good advice – and advice which we need to consider in the wider social context, too. There are sinply too many yawning gaps opening between different parts of our society.
In the immediate aftermath of the August riots Parliament was reconvened.
I told the House of Lords that “the redeeming features of these terrible events has been the dignified stoicism of men such as Tariq Jahan, and the way in which community organisations such as Toxteth Against the Riots have held together and stood on their own streets, defending their own territory.”
Tariq Jahan’s moving appeal for the riots to end and for there to be no retaliation following the death of his son, Harron, was a defining moment.
I went on to say that I had witnessed the riots in Liverpool 30 years earlier and that there had been “deep and complex” causes; and that we needed to “particularly examine the crisis of values and virtues; at the flaccid language of rights, which has pushed to one side the idea of duties, obligations and responsibilities; and at the issue of absent fathers? 800,000 children in this country have no contact with their fathers.”
I told the House that <em>“900 children are excluded from school every day”</em> for violence or abuse and that “parents have to be on the side of teachers” in re-establishing a sense of discipline in our schools.
Thirty years ago, on April 7th 1981, three months before the 1981 riots, I had taken part in a fiery debate in the House of Commons, warning about the dangers of youth unemployment, warning that the devil was making mischief for idle hands; and describing their susceptibility to extreme political organisations. Thirty years later, with half of our 16 year olds lacking basic qualifications in maths or English and with hundreds of thousands of young people not in education, training or employment, we are in the same situation. Only today figures were published revealing the worst unemployment levels in 25 years – and once more, young people are the worst affected.
During that same debate I argued that:
“Race is not the cause, nor, taken separately, are unemployment, inadequate housing or bad police relations with the public. Taken together, however, those issues provide the ingredients necessary for the conflagrations which have occurred throughout Britain. They are also weapons in the hands of those whose only aim is to destroy and disrupt. .. The fuel to feed their fire.”
As Claudius says in Hamlet: “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”
But beyond the obvious surface wounds are much deeper wounds in the body of modern Britain. This is connected to the jettisoning of previously widely shared Judaeo-Christian values: Values and virtues which came to England from this city of Rome. In 573, Pope Gregory the Great famously saw Anglo Saxon slaves in Trajan’s Market and asked who they were. He was told “Angli”, famously replying, “non Angli, sed angeli” – and duly sent St.Augustine of Canterbury to the English. From Rome, too, we have been given Cicero’s principle and virtue of “Duty.”
Notwithstanding their foundations, our contemporary communities have lost clear spiritual leadership and the void has been filled with everything from drugs to guns; from crude exploitation of women and children to the wholesale destruction of life in the womb; from untrammelled consumerism to naked greed – evidenced in the City, at Westminster, in benefit fraud and on our streets. What happened to the sixth and eight Commandments – “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal”? In jettisoning the Maker we have lost the Maker’s instructions – always risky when you are working with a complex model.
In 1942, while we remained at war, Archbishop William Temple published his “Christianity and Social Order”. He insisted that “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens…the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”
That is the challenge, too for this generation.
Yet, few mainstream political commentators have been willing to make a link between the abandonment of commonly shared Judaeo-Christian values and the anarchy which we have witnessed in our institutions and on our streets – partly because for years they have been in the vanguard of attacking those same values as archaic, insisting that they inhibit our happiness. So we no longer see value in keeping Sunday as a family day or value our extended families. In 2005 Mary Ann Glendon coined the pithy phrase “Traditions in Turmoil” as the title for her analysis of the jettisoning of the ties which bind.
And look at the consequences which have flowed from the discarding of values and virtues once taught by parents and re-enforced by educationalist and by civil society.
A faithless society has become an atomised, lonely, and selfish society; a faithless society has become a culturally diminished society; a faithless society has become a fatherless society and a broken family society. What has been done in the name of freedom has created a world of CCTV cameras; to high streets which have become no go areas after dark; and to binge drinking and shelves full of anti depressants. How has this made us freer or happier? In 2006 a report by University College, London stated that “The UK has the worst problem with anti-social behaviour in Europe.” It has increasingly felt like a world rapidly going to hell in a basket.
Winston Churchill wept when he saw the destruction of the East End of London by Nazi bombardment. He understood the importance of drawing a whole nation around a common cause: “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.”
Today, our nation faces a new common enemy and a new peril. It is both external and internal. But it can also become a common cause; and one of the best weapons we have remains Churchill’s belief in those single words which we in Great Britain cherish: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope. Our task must surely be to persuade all our citizens to feel likewise.
Lest you doubt me, that we are reaping what we have sown, let’s take a look at what I will call…
2. The Condition of England Question
In 1839 Thomas Carlyle coined the phrase The Condition of England Question to describe the social and political conditions – and the associated working-class deprivation and social and political agitation – which the English population experienced in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. Carlyle was part of a movement seeking the repudiation of eighteenth century individualism in favour of greater nineteenth century social responsibility.
If today, we, too, were to assess the condition of England – with its 63 million citizens – on the basis of broader social policy, we might be shocked by the tatterdemalion society in which we live today.
The correct place to start is with our children.
The Condition of England Question 2011 would reveal that three-quarters of a million British children have no contact with their fathers following the breakdown of their relationships. According to the Children’s Society, 100,000 children run away from home every year. Save the Children says that 3.9 million children are living in poverty and that a staggering 1.7 million children are living in severe, persistent poverty in the UK-which is, after all, one of the richest countries in the world. Every day 4,000 children call Childline. Since it was founded in 1986, it has counselled more than a million children.
Before they are born, each day we abort 600 of our children, some up to birth if they have a disability or defect such as a cleft palate. Blessed John Paul II once observed that “a nation that kills its own children is a nation without hope” and it was Victor Frankl in The Doctor and the Soul, who said “sometimes the unfinished are among the most beautiful of symphonies.”
One in five of our children don’t make it to birth and those who do often also remain unfinished works robbed of innocence, robbed of hope. We kill them before birth and hurt and damage them after birth.
Consider that five million images of child abuse are in circulation on the internet, featuring some 400,000 children. In Edinburgh, figures published last year showed a 75 per cent increase in the number of babies addicted to drugs because of their mothers’ addiction.
As they grow up suicide accounts for 20 per cent of all deaths among young people aged 15 to 24. More than 140,000 people attempt to commit suicide every year.
Last year, Samaritans answered 4.6 million calls from people in despair, which is one call every seven seconds. Also last year, 29.4 million anti-depressants were dispensed, which is a 334 % increase since 1985 at a cost to the National Health Service of £338 million.
Ask The Condition of England Question and the answer comes back that:
Five hundred people will sleep rough tonight. The number of homeless people in the United Kingdom is 380,000, which is the same as the population of Bristol. We call ourselves rich, successful, sophisticated and prosperous. But in respect to the values that matter most is this really so? Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was not convinced.
After visiting London’s homeless in “cardboard city” – where the homeless sleep rough under sheets of cardboard – she commented that it was London rather than Calcutta which was the poorer city.
Ask The Condition of England Question and the answer comes back that:
The prison population has increased by 85 per cent since 1993. This week, 85,056 men and women are in our jails; that gun crime in the United Kingdom claims 30 victims every day; that the average lifespan for people who get involved in gun crime in Manchester is a mere 24 year; that one woman in every four will be the victim of violence in her own home during the course of her lifetime.
Ask The Condition of England Question and the answer comes back that:
Individuals now owe more in debt than the wealth generated by the entire country in a year. Last year total UK personal debt stood at £1,451 billion. 331 people every day of the year will be declared insolvent or bankrupt. This is equivalent to 1 person every 60 seconds during a working day.
Ask The Condition of England Question and the answer comes back that:
-and it shames us – that in Britain, an estimated 1 million elderly people do not see a friend or neighbour during an average week; that 7 million are now living alone in Great Britain – entirely unprecedented in our history. 26% of households comprising just one and on present trends by 2016 36% of all homes will be inhabited by a single person.
This has led to huge pressures for additional accommodation and to toxic loneliness.
The psychologist, Oliver James in Britain on the Couch, asks “Why are we unhappier than we were in the 1950s despite being richer?” Clinical depression, he suggests, is ten times higher among people born after 1945 than among those born before 1914. Women under the age of 35 are the most vulnerable.
The poet, TS Eliot, could have had this dehumanised society in mind when he suggested that we are “living and partly living”, while CS Lewis prophetically foresaw a society where we would see what he famously called “The Abolition of Man” -the title of one of his books.
When Mother Teresa was the guest of the White House at the National Prayer Breakfast she described to President Clinton and his guests how she had visited a home for the elderly where they had no shortage of material conveniences, but “why” she asked “does everyone sit looking at the door?”
She received the reply “It is because they are looking for the relatives who never come to visit them and who have no time for them”
The Condition of England Question also reveals a society where too many people think they owe nothing to anyone except the pursuit of their own desires. We increasingly fail to participate.
The Caravan Club and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have more members than all of the UK’s political parties combined. Just 1% of the population are members of a political party in the UK. We have come a long way since the Liberal, Conservative or Labour Club sat in the heart of every community. Trimdon Labour Club – the scene of Tony Blair’s Sedgefield triumphs – closed a year ago.
In 1951 the Conservative Party had 2.9 million members, Labour, 876,000; today they have 177,000 and 190,000 respectively and the Liberal Democrats have seen a reduction of their membership by 30,000 to 66,000.
Involvement in church life has also declined. While almost 2 out of 3 still identify themselves as Christians around 15%, 4 million people, go to church at least once a month – the fourth lowest attendance rate in Europe. Intriguingly many still claim a personal relationship with God but decline to make the effort to take part in church life. They believe without belonging; believe without participating.
There have also been a decline in membership of trades unions from 13million to 7 million in little over 30 years; and representative organisations, such as Women’s Leagues and the Mother’s Unions, also experiencing significant falls.
For a society to be healthy we have to be participators and the trustees, not the owners, of what we possess. Social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness or the hegemony of the state.
The Chinese calligraphy for the word crisis can also be used for the word opportunity. Dire situations can be turned around.
When Thomas Carlyle asked his Condition of England Question the country was experiencing huge social change. There was a newly mobile working class, detached from its traditional rootedness in ancient rural communities. There was a breakdown of social order and lack of family cohesion. People were adversely affected by the Napoleonic Wars; exploitation by factory and mill owners; and by the misery of urban squalor. The church was in a state of decay.
It was into this quagmire that men like John and Charles Wesley stepped, their hearts warmed, as they said, by the Holy Spirit. Their new enthusiasm so alarmed the church authorities that church doors were literally barred against them.
In the fields and at make shift venues the re-evangelisation of England began. The Wesleys, George Whitfield, and others, deepened the religious renewal – followed in the nineteenth century by the Oxford Movement and the Tractarians, and then by the Catholic Spring and Cardinal John Henry Newman and Cardinal Manning. The religious awakening was accompanied by a commensurate awakening of social virtue and work for the common good, and among the achievements of Christian social reformers such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury were the abolition of slavery, the ending of child labour, public health legislation, ragged free schools, and significant social progress.
A century later, in 1904, Joseph Jenkins led an extraordinary Welsh religious revival which brought 100,000 converts in a year. Many became the flag bearers for political and social activism. The chapel spearheaded reform and deterred revolution.
Through these examples of religious and spiritual revival we can trace personal renewal and then national reconstruction. We can also see the path we need to take. Having understand The Condition of England Question and analysed the root causes we then need to commit ourselves to act.
Out of the present malaise and crisis is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life; the duty we each have to the communities of which we are a part: a call for an outpouring for the common good.
To achieve this we will need more of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, the voluntary groups and neighbourhood associations that would be integral to what David Cameron has called a, “broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”. This would represent our best hope of combating today’s gigantic challenges.
But I would caution those who lose a sense of balance and believe that we can dispense with the State, especially when it comes to providing protection for the least fortunate and the least well off in society.
When Archbishop Temple was writing about a new social order, his friend William Beveridge published his report on welfare. In 1942 he laid out his plans to eliminate “freedom from want” – seeing the State as a safety net but certainly not a suffocating blanket. His objective was to eliminate what he identified as “five giant evils” – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Thanks to Beveridge, we tilted away from indifference and reliance on charitable giving to intervention and direct help. John Maynard Keynes correctly observed that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
Temple, Beveridge and Keynes were right, but poverty today comes in many different guises. You may own – or have stolen – a flat screen TV and not be materially poor but live in disturbed culture where a diet of misery literature and mass manufactured mediocrity creates its own kind of poverty.
You’re poor when you don’t know your own or experience the happiness and comfort which we derive from our families and our children. Frenetic lives geared to the accumulation of possessions are often devoid of true happiness. An aggressive, unsparing and invasive materialism has come to dominate us.
There are signs that out of the debris of a compromised fiscal system, some people are beginning to reassess what really matters to them and what they truly value. Here is an opportunity to proclaim a belief in human dignity, the worth of each life, and the duty we each have to our children, our families and the communities of which we are a part.
This is the answer to The Condition of England Question.
Let me give one specific example of what I mean. Let me call it
3. The Parable of the Prodigal Father
A rabbi once said “God was too busy – so He invented mothers” – perhaps I could be permitted to add that He also invented fathers – and that the absence of fathers in the lives of three quarters of a million children has become one of the major factors in the disaggregation of our communities and in the shaping of the next generation of adults.
A quarter of our children live with one parent, not two, and a third of these live below the poverty line. Many single parents struggle valiantly – and some very successfully – to bring up their children. But I doubt that many believe their situation is better than having two parents to shoulder the responsibility.
Men particularly need to understand that you may be able to walk away from your girlfriend or to divorce your wife but you can’t divorce your children and to them you have an unending responsibility.
In 2002 the think tank, Civitas, in a report entitled “Experiments in living: the fatherless family”, spelt out the consequences for children being brought up without a father.
They found that they are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation; to have emotional or mental problems; to have trouble at school; to have trouble getting along with others; to have a higher risk of health problems; that they are more likely to run away from home and are likely to be at greater risk of suffering physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
The US National Fatherhood Initiative expresses the matter well: “We have simply changed our minds about the importance of fathers to the well-being of children and families. We have so truncated the role of fathers to where we now say a good father is someone who provides money … It’s far more than just economic. In fact, the non-economic contributions are more important, things like being a good nurturer, a good disciplinarian, a teacher, a moral instructor. These are things we used to look to fathers to contribute to the well-being of their children”.
In England, for boys aged 12 to 17 the factors most strongly associated with serious or persistent offending can often be traced to the absence of a father. Others boys have a poor relationship with their father, who may be violent or take little interest in them. And other fathers are working such long hours that they cannot give their sons the time they need. All of this has accurately been described as the “Dad Deficit”.
In a survey conducted by Adrienne Katz of 1,400 boys, 13 % were found to have low self-esteem, low motivation and low confidence. Boys in that group said that they were uncertain about their responsibilities and depressed about their future. 20% of that group had been in trouble with the police; 11 % were deeply depressed or suicidal. Three out of four suicides in our country are males.
This is an underclass of young men, often detached from the socialising influences of the family, often believing that they are unfairly excluded from the opportunities of the consumer society. If we want to reduce crime, drug abuse and domestic violence and to strengthen families, we must give these young men back hope and self-confidence. More than any other group, our education system has been failing these young people who desperately need values and a sense of self worth.
CentreForum this year argued for a national parenting campaign. It would be a start but so would the repeal of legislation which says you can put the names of any two people – two women for example – on a birth certificate and say they are your father and mother. This biological lie is a deceit perpetrated by the State and is indicative of the low view held by Governments and Parliament about the role of fathers.
We are all familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. In fatherless Britain we need a parable of the prodigal father.
The absence of a father or a male role model leaves too many children like the boy in the childhood fable who lost his shadow.
This dire situation has been a long time in the making.
Ten years ago, in “Citizen Virtues” I argued that if Government properly assessed the potential impact of their policies on families; if they spent as much time facilitating “staying together” as they do in facilitating “breaking up”, we might all be rather better off. A significant proportion of the £100 billion social security budget is directly attributable to the breakdown of the family. The Treasury say that the cost of broken relationships alone is £4 billion each year.
Many of secretly cheered when, just after last year’s election, the Prime Minister asked Birkenhead’s widely admired MP, Labour’s Frank Field, to take a dispassionate look at the plight of children living in impoverished and disintegrating families and communities. His recently published report is entitled: “The Foundation Years, preventing poor children becoming poor adults.”
In it, Mr.Field reflects on the rejection of children by their parents:
“Since 1969 I have witnessed a growing indifference from some parents to meeting the most basic needs of children, and particularly younger children, those who are least able to fend for themselves.”
His view is supported by The Millennium Cohort Study for Bristol University which showed that, measured at the age of three, the key drivers in determining a child’s life chances are positive and authoritative parenting, the home learning environment and other home and family related factors. Frank Field says these measurements should be used as Life Chance Indicators, predictive of children’s readiness for school and of later life outcomes.
These Indicators and the Foundation Years Strategy which he proposes, as the first pillar of a new tripartite education system, may not immediately end income poverty but it can break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage.
Research commissioned by the Department of work and Pensions bears this out: the simple involvement of a mother or father being interested in their children’s education increases a child’s chance of moving out of poverty as an adult by 25%. We must urgently make the teaching of parenting and life skills a greater priority. The extension of initiatives such as Mumsnet, the kite marking of beneficial television programmes, and a reassessment of the relentless and corrosive advertising aimed at children, also have their place. Sure Start Children’s Centres can help parents put elementary parameters, essential for later progress into place – basic things like getting parents to teach their children how to sit still and to listen; how to be aware of others; understanding words like no and stop; mastering basic hygiene and so on. And the Government needs to think again if it plans to radically reduce Sure Start provision.
Frank Field has in no way changed his view about the importance of tackling poverty but believes, as I do, that a strategy which solely depends on income transfer to remedy child poverty is doomed to fail. Instead of viewing the problem through the prism of Charles Booth or Seebohm Rowntree – the tradition which shaped The Child Poverty Act of 2010 – and which led in the past 10 years to the redistribution of £134 billion through tax credit to poorer families – he invites us to consider whether throwing more money at the problem is either realistic or effective. In reality this is a stalled strategy and we must not allow it to strait jacket the debate.
Frank Field’s admirable report reminds us that it would require £37 billion of further tax transfers, per annum, to cut child poverty to 5% of all children by 2020.
Resources do clearly play a part in the nurturing children but, as he says, “this task is not primarily one that belongs to the State. We imperil the country’s future if we forget that it is the aspirations and actions of parents which are critical to how well their children prosper.”
My own parents left school at 14 and came from backgrounds of acute poverty – but both knew the importance of a positive approach to learning at home; to encouraging the education of their children; to improving their own qualifications; and that, despite the vicissitudes of living in poor housing and in a flat on an overspill council estate, money alone was not the key to transforming the life chances of the next generation. I saw this same trump card used by many families in the inner city neighbourhoods of Liverpool that I represented for 25 years as a City Councillor or Member of Parliament.
Frank Field reflects that he has “increasingly come to view poverty as a more subtle enemy than pure lack of money, and I have similarly become increasingly concerned about how the poverty that parents endure is all too often visited on their children.”
Human instinct surely convinces us that a child ideally needs loving parents to provide security, encouragement and a tough love disciplined framework in which they can flourish. Reversing the remorseless erosion of stable parenting cannot be achieved over night but it is the key to liberating the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in cycles of poverty and who are diminished, stunted, by under achievement.
The impact of how well parents nurture their children goes beyond a child fulfilling its potential – it affects the social cohesion of our communities and will, in the long term, affect the happiness as and prosperity of our country.
Mr.Field’s report is hugely important and greatly to be welcomed. It is the fruit of 40 years of working with or representing the underprivileged and disadvantaged and we urgently need to put its recommendations into effect.
This theme of responsibility – personal and communal – is what I wish to turn to next:
4.Duties and Rights; Values and Virtues
When Europe was facing the challenge of Nazism the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, prophetically wrote: “The most important question for the future is how we can find a basis for human life together, what spiritual laws we accept as the foundation of a meaningful human life.”
And to meet this challenge Bonhoeffer argued that we each have a duty to take a stand: “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds. What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.”
In every sphere of life today we need plain, honest, straightforward men and women.
A nation or State will not survive for long if its communities and civil structures are decaying or if its rulers do not pursue civic virtues. A society where individual autonomy and individual choice become trump cards in every game lives dangerously close to the edge. A respect for law, a sense of personal responsibility, public spirit and munificence, firmness of purpose, discernment and foresight, perseverance, and a sense of duty might be chief among the civic qualities to which we aspire; and our gifts must be used for the common good.
It is self evident that our civil society has become increasingly uncivil as modern citizenship has revolved around the flaccid language of rights alone – a point I made in Citizen Virtues. We have created a society where we breed unrealisable demands, a cult of selfishness and materialism. The Jewish sage Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”.
The uncivil society is further entrenched by individual isolation, a weakened sense of ethics and a lack of virtue. We enter perilous waters when choice is not conditioned by any regard for consequences and when society has no shared framework for reaching conclusions because there are so few shared values.
The argument must shift to values and virtues, to responsibilities and obligations. And it needs to affect everyone: from the looter in the high street to the Member of the House of Commons; from the boardroom to the shop-floor; from the civil servant to the Banker.
John Maynard Keynes once said – and he might have had twenty first century bankers in mind: “I would like to warn the gentlemen of the City and High Finance that if they do not listen in time to the voice of reason their days may be numbered. I speak to this great city as Jonah spoke to Nineveh…. I prophesy that unless they embrace wisdom in good time, the system upon which they live will work so very ill that they will be overwhelmed by irresistible things which they will hate much more than the mild and limited remedies offered them now…”
Last week I visited Brantwood, the wonderful Lakeland home of John Ruskin. He once observed that:
“Above all a nation cannot last as a money making mob.”
In citing Keynes and Ruskin, these are not mindless denunciations of wealth creation or high finance. The markets have puled more people out of acute poverty than any other system devised by humankind. Rather it is to invoke the spirit of the great philanthropists and the men and women who generously put their wealth at the service of the nation.
In 1920, in The Acquisitive Society, R.H. Tawney noted our tendency for self interest and to use capitalism for purely acquisitive purposes and to abandon the things which really matter. He said that for a society to be healthy we have to be the trustees – not the owners – of what we possess; that social, political and economic activity must ultimately centre on the common good rather than individual acquisitiveness.
Like Bonhoeffer , St.Edith Stein was a victim of the Nazis. A German-Jewish philosopher, who became a Catholic nun she died in the gas chamber at Auschwitz. At a time when the Nazi State was stifling dissent and corralling its citizens into conformism with the tenets of National Socialism, Stein wrote tellingly about the responsibility of every citizen to be an agent for good or ill; and about the way in which the values of the individual citizen determine the nature of the State in which they live. Both society and the State consist entirely of persons. These are not mysterious entities. They are made up of men, women and children whose strengths and weaknesses, talents and needs, are all too real.
“The state is not an abstract entity. It acts and suffers only as those individual agents through whose actions the functions of the state are discharged act and suffer… Moral predicates apply to the state only insofar as they apply to the relevant individuals.’
The State, then, takes its inspiration from the values of its citizens.
If Britain is to be remade it will require a huge effort to persuade every citizen to take seriously the promotion of the commons good. We will need, once again, to cultivate Aristotle’s ancient virtues of justice, wisdom, temperance, courage, magnanimity, tolerance, munificence, prudence and gentleness, along with Cicero’s belief in the principle of duty.
Robert Kennedy saw the importance of getting this balance right:
“Since the days of Greece and Rome when the word ‘citizen’ was a title of honour, we have often seen more emphasis put on the rights of citizenship than on its responsibilities. And today, as never before in the free world, responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom’s privileges.”
The English author, H. G. Wells, who died in 1946, understood what would happen if we fail to appreciate the role of education in fostering civilised society, where personal civic responsibility is cultivated in each person: “Maintaining civilisation is a constant race between education and catastrophe”, he declared. We constantly need to ask ourselves how we will form citizens who are willing to accept responsibilities and duties. So how should we go about it?
5. What We Can Do.
Educationalists sometimes quote a wise Chinese proverb: “If you are thinking one year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead, educate the people”.
It is a thought with which I profoundly agree.
But education is about more than laws or regulations, and it cannot simply be reduced to academic achievement – important though that is.
Educating for citizenship is educating us to know ourselves. Beyond being told that stealing or lying is wrong, we also need to know what it is about them that makes them unacceptable. Rules must genuinely serve the development of judgement.
First principles will require us to clearly state what we expect of a citizen; that sharing in the common life of a nation or community confers responsibilities and obligations.
If we were to educate for citizenship and to take seriously the civic deficit, we would enshrine the duties of each person: to live peaceably; to participate in civic institutions and the processes of local and national government; to contribute to the resourcing of commonly beneficial institutions; to acquire knowledge and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge in children; to learn respect for the needs of others; to behave ethically; and to appreciate how legitimate rights have been acquired, and to cherish them.
In the construction of civil societies we must build on custom and on virtue rather than political ideology.
Among the ancients the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is best known for his belief that everyone should pursue virtue and for his upholding of communal existence, or koinonia. The koinonia was not about civic structures of government but about the qualities in mankind which made civic co-existence a possibility. In “Politics” he wrote that we are “not like solitary pieces in chequers.” He said “aidos, or shame, would attach to those who refused to play their part. In ancient Rome, Cicero held that “the whole glory of virtue is in activity.”
Aristotle’s ancient virtues remain for me the key to building a civil society:
Justice; Wisdom; Temperance; Courage; Magnanimity; Tolerance; Munificence; Prudence; and Gentleness.
As St.Edith Stein insisted, how a person acts as a moral agent affects everything from how they behave towards their neighbours and their environment to how they uphold ethical standards in politics or commerce. We begin building a civil society by our own actions towards one another – by our willingness to serve rather than to dominate and by our willingness to embrace values which run counter to those which may prevail throughout mainstream society.
Christ offered the virtues of faith, hope and charity (the love of God in its original meaning) and encourages us to “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (St.Luke 6:31).
For Confucius, such concern for others is demonstrated through the practice of forms of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;” “Since you yourself desire standing then help others achieve it, since you yourself desire success then help others attain it.” He teaches that such altruism can be accomplished only by those who have learned self-discipline; the cultivation of that inner liberty which gives mastery over self; and, finally, a love of knowledge and truth.
The English philosopher, T.H.Green rightly believed that the citizen becomes a “grown man” when he appreciates that freedom is about more than the right to get drunk or not to impede another’s freedom: it is about the cultivation of the best in self and in the wider community, with others, to achieve the common good.
Education of the citizen should, then, underline the moral significance of self-knowledge – as agents in the way we live and affect others. Without such an appreciation, we end up justifying our actions by the unthinking assertion that we were “only obeying orders”, or that “It’s what everybody else does”. In extremity, this leads to the hecatombs of the concentration camps and the nightmare kingdoms of Nazism but the everyday examples are commonplace.
John Henry Newman, wrote a treatise on “the idea of a university” and he extolled the importance of developing the character and values of the student: “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another.”
His contemporary, the great Victorian novelist, Charles Dickens – whose bicentenary we celebrate next year – famously opened his brilliant and classic novel, Hard Times, with the teacher, Thomas Gradgrind, stating an alternative education philosophy, an approach which Dickens lampooned and despised: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them”.
Thomas Jefferson – who founded the University of Virginia, and became the third President of the United States – in 1818 set out some of the new University’s objectives. These included enabling “every citizen…to understand his duties to his neighbours and his country…to form the statesmen, legislators and judges…rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves”. So, none of this is exactly rocket science: others have been here before.
We must decide, are we with Newman and Jefferson or with Gradgrind? And how can we give these ideas practical effect?
In 1997 I established the Roscoe Foundation for Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University, where I hold a chair.
Among the challenges I identified were:
* The increasing isolation of the individual within the context of the modern urban environment;
* The fracturing of community bonds and their corresponding effects on the relationship of individuals to the state;
* The lack of understanding about civic responsibilities and duties in the democratic state;
* The lack of a co-ordinated approach towards corporate responsibility and involvement in the community; and
* The failure to address at any level of the curriculum the role of citizens and what responsible citizenship in modern society really means.
During the decade since identifying those challenges we have staged over 100 public Roscoe Lectures and developed a Good Citizenship Award which now operates in almost 1000 schools in the North West. We present an award which shows the tree of life made up of people and which bears the legend men and women for others. Every recipient receives a certificate from the University for their Record of Achievement. We have recorded some quite extraordinary examples of public service among young people – ranging from personal acts of courage in overcoming adversity, to fund raising for good causes; from children who have literally saved the lives of others to young people who have developed an ethical trading company. Others have organised visits to isolated elderly people, raised money for local hospices, found ways to support disabled people.
These young people are, as Ghandi put it, living the change which they wish to see.
The good citizenship awards are an example of how we can cultivate virtue and different values. Our individual actions can have far reaching repercussions.
When China’s previous distinguished Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Madam Fu Ying, returned to Beijing last, she said that she would never forget a Welsh boy called Isaac.
Distressed by the news of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which was the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time and which claimed the lives of 69,227 Chinese people, and left 300,000 people injured, Isaac wanted to take some action of his own to help.
So, Isaac asked his friends and neighbours to sponsor him for every mile he walked from his home in Wales to London, raising money and drawing attention to the plight of the victims as he went: “An ambassador”, said Madam Fu Ying, “will never forget that.”
Isaac’s story brings to mind another story – the story of a boy who is walking along a beach where thousands of dying star fish have been left high and dry by the retreating tide. An incredulous adult asks the boy, who is throwing the starfish, one by one, back into the water, why he is bothering: “there are simply too many; it won’t make any difference” says the adult.
“But it will make a difference to that one” retorts the boy.
Isaac’s actions were like the actions of the boy on the beach. Those actions also remind us that citizenship is not a theory it is best experienced and learnt through our practical actions. It is how we learn about others and about ourselves. It is where we experience human flourishing.
Too often we use the excuse of our own imperfections or inadequacies from being actively engaged citizens.
Newman understood this temptation well and said “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”
Elsewhere he said “We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin”
If we are to see fundamental change and avoid a repetition of the events of this August we dare not hide behind our own perceived inadequacies. We need to understand the nature of the challenge and find small and big ways to meet the challenge. We must do this in our homes and families, our educational institutions, our places of work, our institutions, and in the community at large.
In this lecture I have discussed five things –
1. A Summer of Discontent.
2. The Condition of England Question.
3. The Parable of The Prodigal Father
4.Duties and Right, Values and Virtues; and
5. What we can do.
I want to end with two thoughts.
The British Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, was asked how he could believe in a god who permitted Auschwitz and he replied: “Do not ask where was God at Auschwitz, ask where was man.”
The condition of our country will depend on what we each, individualy, do about it. Don’t blame someone else – especially not God.
And, after the events which led to Auschwitz and the Second World War, Pastor Martin Niemoller was asked by the American Congress how it was that, in a country with so many nominal Catholics and Protestants, Nazism had been able to dominate German so quickly.
He famously replied
“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics
And I did not speak out – because I was a Protestant
Then they came for me –
and by then there was no one left to speak out for me.”
In our own times, as we survey the condition of England – and look elsewhere at developments elsewhere in Europe – we need to raise our voices, to become participators, and not leave the destiny of our nation to others.