Why we need morality in our politics more than ever

“The more politics looks like a form of management rather than an engine of positive and morally desirable change, the more energy it will lose.”

Rishi Sunak speaking at the dispatch box in the House of Commons at PMQs

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

I was recently interviewed opposite Miriam Cates, the Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge. We discussed the Government’s Rwanda policy, whether it would achieve Rishi Sunak’s stated aim of stopping small boat crossings, whether it would allow the UK to continue to adhere to international and treaty obligations, whether it is humane.

It will come as no surprise that Cates and I hold different opinions. Where it seems self-evident to me that the policy will fail its stated intention of stopping boat crossings while making it impossible for the UK to fulfil its humanitarian obligations to people seeking asylum, Cates believes that “the best way to show compassion to those being trafficked around the world is to effectively deter the people-smuggling gangs.”

Asylum seekers need to be told that “if you come here illegally you will not be allowed to stay” to “act as an effective deterrent”. The fact that this will prevent the UK offering asylum to people in genuine need seems not to have occurred to Cates, or if it has to have left her untroubled.

Yet what shocked me was not her views on the Rwanda policy, which are standard issue for the right of the Conservative Party. More shocking was her view of government and its need to base its decisions within the moral framework of the nation and people it represents.

Morality, she said, was merely a private and personal endeavour. She encouraged listeners to feel private compassion for asylum seekers yet argued that government has no such obligation. Government, she said, is not a moral structure or organisation. It can pursue ‘strong borders’ without care for the needs of the individuals affected because compassion is not its remit.

In doing so, Cates ignores the evident truth that private compassion has little meaning if it does not result in public action. No asylum seeker is made safe by my concern from afar, only government action in accordance with treaty obligations and human rights law achieves that end.

Indeed it seems undeniable that those laws and treaties were put in place in the postwar years because of the compassion engendered through the suffering of war and the desire to ensure it could never be repeated.

It is true that that UK Government cannot provide for every person in need on the planet. No country can, which is why the UK is party to a range of international agreements that set out the limits of the UK’s responsibility.

Government has a responsibility to act in a way which meets the moral expectations of the people it serves and who elected it. The Rwanda policy’s failure to meet the moral expectations of a large part of the British public is a major reason for its unpopularity.

In January, YouGov found that only 20% of the public want it enacted in its current form, against 40% who want it scrapped. For some their opposition will be based on cost, practicality and legality, but for many it comes down to distaste at the policy’s inherent cruelty.

This is not to deny that governments face trade offs that individuals do not. Faced with an individual causing deep harm to another person I call the police. Yet governments of all stripes need to compromise with regimes which on some level we deeply oppose.

Few believe that the UK or West more generally should cut off all ties with China over its deplorable actions against the Xinjiang Uyghur population given the need for collaboration on climate change, and the belief that a China within the international community will be less likely to invade Taiwan than one without it.

Nonetheless we expect our foreign secretaries to raise human rights on visits to China while maintaining a pragmatic working relationship and keeping open channels of communication.

A large majority of UK citizens supports a ban on arms exports to Israel: in a poll taken before seven aid workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike, a majority of 56% to 17% said they were in favour of a ban on the export of arms and spare parts; 59% to 12% voters said Israel is violating human rights in Gaza.

David Cameron’s decision to keep arming Israel may as he says keep the UK in line with “like-minded countries” but it sets his government at odds with the wishes of most British people.

The public is not naïve. People know that government cannot cure all ills at home never mind abroad.

But just as people expect their politicians to behave ethically – and as seen with Boris Johnson and many of his former colleagues will judge them harshly when they fail – most believe that government should act morally when it has the power to do so.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argued in 2007 that “the modern state needs a robust independent tradition of moral perception with which to engage; left to itself it cannot generate the self-critical energy that brings about change.”

“The more politics looks like a form of management rather than an engine of positive and morally desirable change,” he argued, “the more energy it will lose.”

The state, he said, cannot be immune from challenge on moral grounds at least in part because this would force people to seek change outside rather than within the electoral system.

Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil are modern examples – citizens resorting to street protest in the face of a Government willing to cast aside climate mitigation in a desperate attempt to gain votes.

Former Just Stop Oil backer Dale Vince’s decision to switch donations to Labour, such is his trust in the party’s climate credentials, may mark a turning point, as may this week’s ECHR decision to uphold a woman’s claim that the Swiss government had violated the human rights of its citizens by failing to do enough to combat climate change.

Government, believes Williams, must be about “more than considerations of profit and security”. It must encompass “moral energy and vision” aimed towards the achievement of a “positive human ideal”.

The language may be alien to many but in a country sickened by a governing party comfortable with over £7 billion of fraudulent Covid waste, fraud and flawed contracts, and unconcerned by NHS waiting lists so long that tens of thousands now die waiting for treatment, while it is now commonplace for people to wait 24 hours in Accident and Emergency before being allocated a bed, much of the public is keenly aware of the need for renewed attention to a moral politics.

No one expects government to explicitly describe itself as a moral entity; to do so would be to invite untold criticism when it inevitably needed to compromise its ideals at home or abroad due to finite resources or foreign policy realities. But citizens know right from wrong, and as Williams says, need democracy to be about a vision of a better future, not only the sustaining of profit and security in the here and now.

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