Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Who I am, What I believe"

Gordon Browns speech is already being binned by some opinion writers, but it's worth a look to try (again) to get to grips with Browns vision and values. This wasn't Gordon £rown, measuring everything in sterling, but seemed like a determined attempt to spell out a moral vision. The headlines are from Coldplay, in case you wondered.

(PS Welcome if you've come here from the Today website. How I've ended up there I don't know, I shall have to be nice to the Beeb now)

See What I'm All About
Browns opening line was : "I want to talk with you today about who I am, what I believe", so lets take him at his word. What does make him tick?

- the mantra of the speech was 'fairness', which clocked nearly 40 mentions in one form or another.
- 'duty' - which Brown applied both to himself and to others
- service: the role of the government is to serve the people: “our duty, what gives us moral purpose is serving the people who need us most… people on middle and modest incomes who need to know that they are not on their own amidst this change – we are on their side

There was a lot of talk about values, enduring beliefs, the DNA of Labour etc., which all seemed to come back to fairness. But what does Brown mean by fairness? A few quotes which flesh it out
"treating others how we would be treated ourselves."

And doesn't each of us want to say of ourselves:
That I helped someone in need.
That I come to the aid of a neighbour in distress.
That I will not pass by on the other side.
That I will give of myself for something bigger than myself
" (in spite of Theos, this was the only Biblical or faith allusion in the whole speech)

and part of this fairness is advocacy: defending the weak at home and abroad. “the poor will not go unheard tomorrow at the United Nations, because we the British people will speak up for them and for justice.”

You've Got to Soldier On
...and fairness means not only that the government will support you if you're vulnerable, but if you're not vulnerable you should do your bit. “everyone who can work, must work” . Brown talked repeatedly of a new 'settlement' - we work hard, make the effort, be enterprising, and in return the government will 'serve' us by insuring us against the uncertainties of globalism, and protecting us when we're vulnerable.

Part of the 'settlement' was a raft of proposals for the vulnerable: free prescriptions for folk with long-term illness, more support for the elderly, a better safety net for educational failure, and free nursery places for 2 year olds.

Whoah horsey! Free nursery places for 2 year olds? Is that really about protecting the vulnerable, or is it adding a rider to that 'everyone who can work, must work' phrase: 'even if you've got children'. Despite the rhetoric about supporting families, it is working families who are valued, parenting families didn't get a look in. Parents featured as a) workers and earners and b) people with children in the education system but never as parents full stop. This continues to bother me.

Sometimes Even the Right is Wrong
There was the obligatory Tory-bashing, and no mention of the Libdems at all. Brown took issue, again, with the 'Broken Society'. His alternative is 'the Fair Society', and noted that “we should never forget one thing - that every single blow we have struck for fairness and for the future has been opposed by the Conservatives.”

Dreaming of When the Morning Comes
So what's the vision? What does he get out of bed for in the morning? What is the pulsating heart of Gordon Brown?
Providing free nursery care for more children is a cause worth fighting for.
Providing better social care for older people who need it is a cause worth fighting for.
Delivering excellence in every single school is a cause worth fighting for.
Universal check-ups and new help to fight cancer - these are all causes worth fighting for."

‘fairness is in our DNA, it’s who we are – and what we’re for. It’s why labour exist… we stand up, we fight hard, for fairness….treating others how we would be treated ourselves."

This is an ethic of a different age. We're so used to being motivated by the 'feel-good factor' that ideas of duty, hard work, and plain boring old right and wrong don't really give us a buzz any more. But Jerusalem isn't built with a magic wand, it's a slow, labourious and back-breaking process.

Browns vision is not one of a great philosophy or dream, but of practical morality. If you don't have a serious moral purpose at the core of your being, you have no place in politics. I have some serious questions about where he goes with it, but I remember one recent election where what swung my vote was Browns clear commitment as Chancellor to dealing with global poverty. There wasn't much in it on the domestic front, so my vote went with the party likely to be most effective and energetic on behalf of the developing world.

Reign of Love... We're Waiting
Last night we had an evening looking at early church history, and one thing struck me powerfully. 2nd century church worship is described thus by Pliny

“They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing
responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not
to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their
trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so"

A couple of hundred years later, things have changed - the commitment to living a life of integrity and honesty has gone, and been replaced by the reciting of a creed: commitment to an intellectual version of Christianity, in place of a practical one. Subsequent church history shows how much of a mistake this was, sparking repeated attempts by monastic movements to spell out a 'rule of life', a way of living, a practical programme of Christian ethics.

Maybe we'd rather have an intuitive, touchy-feely leader like Blair or Cameron. They are certainly more in tune with society. But the practical morality of Brown - duty, service, fairness, integrity, advocacy for the weak - it may not get your pulse racing, but can we do without it?

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