‘Contested moral equivalences’

August 19, 2011

This Matthew Taylor The Consequences of Throwing Stones post sums up the past week’s fight back from moral degradation extremely well:

“The contrast between what happened to Thomas Downey and the impunity of the bankers and speculators is at one level entirely rational. Downey was personally responsible for committing a crime, the finance guys are collectively responsible for making a killing in a system which has created, and is still exacerbating, a crisis. Some people do terrible things which aren’t against the law; other people do trivial things which are. The state can only punish the law breakers. It’s just the way things are.

But borne on the wind of turmoil and trouble can be heard the swirling murmur of contested moral equivalences. The Government is close to big finance and it made an explicit policy decision to put pressure on the judiciary to hand out longer sentences to all those involved in the riots, so it can’t simply shrug its shoulders if people find this imbalance of consequences ugly and unjust.

The Big Society is in part a way of addressing the limits of the state and market in meeting social need. And for this I have often commended it. But to have credibility, the Big Society must also be about a basic sense of justice, which is essential to social cohesion and morale. Fred Goodwin and thousands more like him are still rich and still making money out of decisions which have had a profoundly damaging impact on innocent people. Thomas Downey and hundreds like him, more guilty of stupidity and impulsive greed than malice, are starting prison sentences which could blight their lives. There may be nothing that can be done about this, but political leadership has sometimes to be about helping us understand why things seem unfair and describing ideas and principles which offer a better foundation for society.

A friend of my fifteen year old son got arrested after the rioting. He didn’t attack or hurt anyone physically but he was involved in the looting. It is clear that the consequences for him as a working class kid are going to be dire. My son said to me last night ’my mate was stupid and he knows it but he is going to lose everything. Why is it when rich people screw up they always seem to get away with it?’  As he spoke I sensed a deep and lasting impression is being made on him about the way things are and how unlikely it is that ‘the system’, as he sees it, will ever change. 

If David Cameron is to return to the promise of his early years as Tory leader and provide a vision which unites, heals and invigorates society then he needs to balance the punitive rhetoric of the last few days. He needs to say something which touches and unlocks this hardening sense of injustice and cynical resignation. He needs to do it powerfully and he needs to do it soon.”

It’s difficult to be anything but totally cynical about what is happening. And some wonder why such cynicism about politics and politicians is so rife – hands in till? ‘but i paid it back’ -…I don’t know whether it’s the cynicism or the lack of understanding about why it exists that is the most depressing.


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