Tristram Hunt: on how progressive politics is in danger of losing touch with notions of good and evil, dignity and nobility.
He takes the analysis from Susan Neiman’s new book, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists, and applies it to Labour’s deregulatory policies on betting shops and lap-dancing clubs. There have traditionally been two impulses in progressive politics: first, to create a society where certain human values and ideals can flourish – a society that has some common notions of what it means to be happy and fulfilled as a person; second, to create a society in which individuals are free to pursue their personal fulfilment in whatever way they choose. The latter move, which seems so attractive and egalitarian, can end up merging with the worst aspects of the unrestrained market economy: witness the proliferation of bookies and strip clubs in suburban high streets; it can also lead one to deny that there is anything objectively worthwhile about human life – other than the choice itself of how (or whether) to live.
These are big questions about the relationship between personal autonomy and objective morality, between subjective notions of happiness and objective fulfilment (if there is such a thing). Peter Maurin (co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in New York) once said that we should try to create a society in which it is easier for people to be good. He wasn’t moralising. He meant, I think, that it is almost impossible to imagine how a politician – or anyone committed to their own community or society – can avoid having some notion of what is truly good and fulfilling for the human person. It’s hard, in other words, to have ideals and zeal for progress if one does not have some convictions about good and evil, dignity and nobility.