Morality and the liberal

The wider significance of the Liberal Democrat victory in the Gurkha debate yesterday is twofold.

Well, threefold. To get the bleeding obvious out of the way first, it’s another strangled warble in the painfully operatic death of Gordon Brown’s political career (y’know, the ones that never … quite … diiiiiiii-iiiiiiii-iiieeeeee!)

Secondly, it may come to be seen as a defining moment in Clegg’s leadership. No media source that I am aware of is denying him full credit for having taken up the Gurkhas’ cause as soon as he reached office. An otherwise generous David Cameron felt the need to interrupt Clegg yesterday during their joint press conference with La Lumley, halfway through Clegg’s perfectly articulate answer to a question which was put directly to him. That interruption is a telling sign of who was political top dog yesterday afternoon.

The most successful parliamentary moment in Clegg’s leadership so far may become particularly significant if this afternoon’s debate on MPs expenses – where he has also been leading the way, having been the first leader to moot the idea of a three-way meeting – turns out equally well for the two opposition parties.

A nice parallel in several ways is Paddy Ashdown’s championing of the Hong Kong citizens who applied for British passports in 1997. This was similarly a niche issue at first which slowly rose to top of the national discourse and established Paddy as someone who had Done the Right Thing. The Iraq war, of course, is another parallel – all three fitting enough for a party of internationalists.

But thirdly, and most significantly, the Gurkha debate constituted a sudden and spectacular meeting of minds between liberalism and the self-styled “moral majority”. Andrew Neil commented that he had never had such a flood of emails after PMQs, and all in support of the Gurkhas cause.

This is because, and let’s not shirk this issue, the Gurkhas hit on some rather old-school buttons. The moral majority like Gurkhas, they’re brave and love Britain etc. And the same moral majority has spent some years railing against excessive immigration of the undeserving. Suddenly they have a clear-cut case in front of them of the deserving being denied the right to immigrate. It enables them to affirm their support for all things British – or better still Anglophile – military and citizenly, while also denouncing all the “murderers and terrorists” whom they imagine to be spilling over the borders. As a fable, the story of the Gurkhas is about as neat and Middle England-flavoured as you can get. And Joanna Lumley was involved. No wonder the moral majority went wild for the Gurkhas.

But I’m not being dismissive of the moral majority (no, that was just good-natured joshing), because there was, under all the prejudiced persiflage, a strong moral conviction and it went like this: if them, why not them. If this, why not that. If the willingness to die for a country, why not the right to live in it. The kind of people who write into Andrew Neil might call that morality. We liberals usually call it fairness – Clegg departed from our usual touchy-feely inoffensive script yesterday in using the M-word.

Of course, our “fairness” and their “morality” are not quite the same. Our “if them, why not them” works equally in reverse, against the social tyrannies of the moral majority. Tomorrow we’ll find ourselves fighting an unpopular cause again. Evan Harris had it neatly summed up at a session during the Convention on Modern Liberty, when he challenged a Conservative panel on their happy claims to be liberals – “What about,” he said, “The people you don’t like?” Would this enthusiasm for localism, for social enterprise, and for freedom from government control, extend to all, he wanted to know? Or just to the approved causes, as now? Aren’t we just looking at a set of people with different approved causes in the Conservatives?

This is the question we need to keep asking them, perhaps all the more so after the co-operation on the Gurkhas. As can be clearly seen from their marriage tax proposals, Conservative social engineering is, basically, just Labour social engineering in old-fashioned clothes. I hold no faith whatsoever that they even begin to understand why Nick Clegg has championed the cause of the Gurkhas, for all that they cheered him on yesterday when he used the words “moral” and “decency”.

As Mill observed, sometimes  that which purports to be a fixed moral code amongst the moral majority is in fact a social tyranny, often highly specific to its time. “If them, why not them” is a principle that many who supported the Gurkhas’ cause can pick up and put down as it pleases them. Another time, their core “moral” message may be nothing more substantial than “I don’t think that’s very nice” or “It hasn’t always been done like that”. Dominic Grieve acknowledged this beautifully at the Convention when he said that what held the right back from full authoritarianism was the idea that “one’s grandfather might have disapproved”.

If that seems an oddly mutable thing to come out of the mouth of a decent man in an avowedly “moral” party, it’s because it is. And it comes as a bit of a shock to me, as someone who would sooner gnaw their own leg off rather than tell someone how to live, and gnaw their leg off sooner than have them tell me, that we liberals are actually the guardians of morality. Morality is not a set of social no-nos. Decency is not what the Daily Mail says is ok this week. True moral values are fixed, they are not subject to social or religious fashions, and they deal with all equally – did so even before the Enlightenment. The “if them, why not them” principle, and that other liberal stand-by, “do no harm”, are at the heart of most ancient moralistic religions.

So are other things, of course – but it’s interesting how followers of those religions have apparently been able to tell the difference without any trouble. We must presume that the many millions who call themselves Christians but who do not advocate the stoning to death of adulteresses and homosexuals are guided by something. They have successfully separated the abstract and eternal from the particular and timebound.

That separation is precisely what liberalism is all about, what Evan Harris was getting at during the Convention on Modern Liberty, and what Nick Clegg put across so successfully yesterday.

Maybe we need to follow Clegg’s lead, stop calling this thing we do as liberals “fairness” and call it by its older, proper name.


  1. Wonderful post. And it reminds me of something I thought when people (including yourself) were complaining about Clegg’s use of phrases like ‘ordinary families’ – for all that I don’t like language like that, Clegg is very, VERY good at putting over liberal ideas in terms that Mail readers would understand and respond to. I think this also ties in with some of the stuff Charlotte was talking about the other day about reframing…

    Incidentally, saw this *just* after the LibCon links were posted. Have asked Jennie to edit it in, but don’t know if she’ll be able to…

  2. Oh, excellent! Looking forward to it. And yes, I do see how the family-speak is in the same ball park. But I still don’t accept it as readily because it has such cultural baggage. I’d love to believe that everyone can accept that some people’s “family” are their flatmates and the bar staff at their local, for example, but I just don’t.

    1. Oh absolutely – but I think ‘morality’ also has much of that baggage. Long-term I think either is counterproductive – we have to challenge people’s preconceptions rather than play up to them – but as short- to medium-term strategies, and *so long as we don’t change the content to suit the form* then they’re probably very wise…

  3. First class post, as always. I have a complex interaction with the term moral; I used to reject its use entirely, since I was very young and saw ‘ethical’ as meaning ‘rational behaviour’ and ‘moral’ as meaning ‘irrational categories of behaviour that my mother thinks are wrong’.

    I’ve since adjusted that view a bit. I still don’t like the word, any more than feminists like the word ‘chairman’; it’s not that it’s an invalid construction in common useage, it’s that it has connotations. Specifically, specious views of ‘morality’ are the first port of call whenever someone wants to ban abortion, ban recreational pharamceuticals, ban gays, ban black people, etc. etc. etc. Morality is things people are told not to do.

    The difference between prohibitative and exhortative social feedback mechanisms is much more significant than people like to think. Prohibitative systems nearly always imply Them and Us: there’s always a Them who do, or are, the thing prohibited and an Us who are in power and have the capacity to enforce the prohibition. Exhortative systems; moral codes which function based on expressions of how one should behave rather than lists of ways one shouldn’t, are the reverse. They can only be enforced, or even proposed (particularly in these days of paparazzi) by someone who visibly already follows them.

    “The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught.” — H. L. Mencken

  4. Have you been keeping an eye on this torture shite in America? I find it fascinating that the “also it doesn’t work” argument is rarely used, as someone can just turn around & say “if it did work, by a definition of ‘working’ we could both accept, are you saying it would be ok?”

    They are using moral rather than utilitarian language.

    It is quite rare for this to occur amongst us. I always find that the best way to appeal to me is by saying something along the lines of “Yes, I agree with your values, but the policies you currently support are not the best way to bring that about”. But this, of course, leads to a discussion of whether policies “work” rather than whether they are right.

    Massive issue & that. I have got indigestion & have yet to do my exercise so I will not go into the greater detail as I sometimes do. Will be in a better state by the evening 😀

  5. A cracking argument, and a good case for a bit of word-reclamation. I have problems with ‘the M word’ though; huge ones.

    Firstly, it has been for too long a stick with which to beat whomsoever Mad Mel Phillips and her ilk don’t like this week. Now I accept that that shouldn’t mean that the concept is hijacked, but it might mean that the word has to be relinquished. Words acquire semantic meanings, and that politicises them. Some people, I think they’re usually called racists, will point out that linguistically there is no difference between ‘paki’ and ‘afghan / uzbeck / brit / aussie’ (they’re wrong about the last two). But there is a huge semantic one, and few people would call someone a ‘paki’ without being alive to the feeling behind the word. Likewise, when I hear someone say ‘old-fashioned morality’, I can’t help the feeling that it’s code for ‘let’s hang someone.’

    Secondly, ‘fairness’ and ‘morality’ do not always converge. Retributive justice is a good example of something that plenty of people might argue – some pretty coherently – to be fair. But is it moral? And even if it is, there is a cold, hard morality that dehumanises its adherents.* ‘Do as you would be done by’ only works as a moral code with a whole host of caveats and sub-clauses. The closest anyone can come to making it universal is ‘act in the spirit in which you hope others would act to you’, which is – let’s face it – a lot more vapid.

    Thirdly: True moral values are fixed Really? Really? This is too philosophical a point to get into without writing a thesis, but given the many different cultures throughout geography and time I would submit that it is possible to do a bad thing for a good reason, and the right thing from the wrong reason.** And that’s if you accept that there is some arbitrary system of RIGHT and WRONG, which some people would dispute.

    But I’m very glad about the Gurkhas. For lots of reasons.

    *The quality of mercy is not strained… &c &c

    ** the greatest treason…

  6. Top class post. Morality is a difficult issue but its difficult to argue that the victory for the Gukhas is anything but an unqaulified success for them.

    Unfortuantely I don’t think we’re going to see any change in the attitude of those who pour scorn on immigrants anytime soon.

  7. Agree with the acclamations for this post. Plenty of food for thought.

    I similarly hold reservations for the use of the word moral in the circumstances (even though I succumbed to all the morality clichés in my latest post :-().

    In consulting

    mo⋅ral⋅i⋅ty   [muh-ral-i-tee, maw-] Show IPA
    –noun, plural -ties for 4–6.
    1. conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.
    2. moral quality or character.
    3. virtue in sexual matters; chastity.
    4. a doctrine or system of morals.
    5. moral instruction; a moral lesson, precept, discourse, or utterance.
    6. morality play.

    …we see that moral is not really analogous to fair. The thesaurus reveals that we tend to use it in an analogous fashion however, even if “fair” is not mentioned.

    Moral – Synonyms: aboveboard, blameless, chaste, conscientious, correct, courteous, decent, decorous, dutiful, elevated, exemplary, good, high-minded, honorable, immaculate, incorruptible, innocent, just, kindly, kosher*, laudable, meet, meritorious, modest, moralistic, noble, praiseworthy, principled, proper, pure, respectable, right, righteous, saintly, salt of the earth, scrupulous, seemly, square, straight, true-blue*, trustworthy, truthful, upright, upstanding, virtuous, worthy

    I guess it comes down to context. In the context of the Gurkha, and other liberal arguments, we can most certainly use “moral” and be understood to mean “fair”, as that meaning claimed by the context.

    I think we all agree the word takes on a completely different (and probably more narrow/accurate meaning when uttered by fundamentalist Christians.

    The question is whether the general public can discern the difference.

    I think they can. The context needs to be crystal clear however.

  8. I’m not particularly comfortable with describing arguments in terms of morality and certainly think it should be used sparingly. It worked in this instance because Brown was defending his stance in terms of it costing (I suspect the specious figure of) £1.4 billion. Clegg essentially reposted “never mind the cost, treating these people like this is just wrong”.

    The thing about turning things into a moral argument is tht it instantly simplifies the argument into a binary right/wrong question. Frankly if there’sone thing our political debate is not in need of it’s extra simplification of complex issues.

    The daily Mail (and Polly Toynebee and her ilk for that matter) liketo frame things in this way precisely because it nullifies the complexity. It’s like Michael Portillo on This Week back saying that taxing people over 50% is immoral. Suddenly any questions about the efficacy or practicalities of such a thing evaporate. If it’s immoral then presumably no other considerations mater, it’s wrong so we don’t do it.

    to an extent I envy the moralists the ease of their arguments. The endless “yes but on the other hand” and “well it’s a bi more complicated than that” caveats are mcuh of what makes being painfully liberal painful but it’s hard to thnk of many issues that can be reduced to an unambiguous “this is moral, this is immoral” argument.

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