The social responsibility inferno

The accounts of the terrible fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London in the early hours of yesterday morning are unbearable. It seems that dozens of people perished, including entire families. The mind can scarcely process the images of trapped residents screaming for help or hurling themselves or their children from the 24-story block of flats in the desperate attempt to escape the burning building which went up like a tinderbox in a matter of minutes.

The causes of this catastrophe are not yet known. Nor can we yet say who should take responsibility.

What is obvious, however, is that something was fundamentally wrong with the way the building was constructed or the materials that were used, in breach of the most basic principle of fire-safety that a building’s construction must compartmentalise any fire to prevent it from spreading.

It is also obvious, from what these low-income residents of the block have said, that they repeatedly expressed urgent concerns about the absence of adequate fire-safety precautions but these were ignored or dismissed at every level.

We also know that building, safety and fire regulations were torn up in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s government, a deterioration in standards acceded to or even exacerbated by successive New Labour and Conservative administrations.

In other words, from right to left the political establishment either explicitly or tacitly agreed to let the market rip. In reacting against the previous excesses of state control, politicians veered wildly into the opposite corner and lost their moral compass along the way. Corners were cut in order to stimulate economic activity and maximise profits. The concerns expressed by the poor were contemptuously tossed aside – because the powerless never have a voice.

And then people wonder why Jeremy Corbyn has struck such a chord.

In my 1996 book All Must Have Prizes (now sadly out of print), I described how the politics of both right and left had colluded in the destruction of a commitment to the common good by elevating the free market in both the economic and social spheres. An edited extract from this chapter, “The no-blame no shame, no pain society”, follows below.

    All Must Have Prizes
    The No Blame, No Shame, No Pain Society

    It has been a great mistake to imagine that the Labour and Conservative parties have embodied opposing political philosophies. It is more accurate to say that since 1979, despite the distracting rhetoric of adversarial combat, they have represented but two sides of the same individualistic coin. The left stood for egalitarian individualism in the social sphere, for the doctrine of equality of values and lifestyles; the right stood for libertarian individualism in the economic sphere, for the doctrine that those who could achieve wealth and success should be left alone to do so while those who lost out would have to go to the wall. Neither stood for a culture based on altruism, fuelled by a principled concern for other people. The moral relativism of the left was thus the mirror image of the debased liberalism of the right.

    Some time during the 1950s, the political left lost its grasp of the language of moral discourse. As a result of the rise of the individualistic, consumer culture and the collapse of the Church, altruism began to wither away and individuals handed over the duty of responsibility to the state. In 1960, the great ethical socialist thinker R. H. Tawney wrote that the world was in retreat not merely from particular principles but from the very idea that political principles existed. Morality that transcended economic expediency and the belief that the ends didn’t justify the means seemed part of a ‘remote and worn-out creed’. Tawney’s moral stance fell utterly out of fashion. The view that character and choice affected conduct was derided. Individual responsibility was considered of little significance compared to the forces of economic circumstances. So ethical socialism was left vulnerable to Marxism which destroyed it from within and laissez-faire economics which assaulted it from without.


    Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 proclaiming a return to Victorian values. There was little sign, however, that she had any understanding of what Victorian values actually were. The Victorians had achieved the quite extraordinary feat of remoralising a society in danger of fracturing under the double impact of industrialisation and the shattering collapse of religious authority. It had pulled off this achievement by rooting the individual very firmly in society and in a moral ethic which started from the notion of the common good. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has observed, the ‘self’ to the Victorians meant something rather different from its 1980s incarnation. It was rooted in the social norms and approbation of others, and entailed duties and responsibilities as well as rights. By contrast, today’s ‘self’ is narcissistic and does not have to prove itself by reference to any values or people outside itself. For the Victorians, self-help was centred in family and community; among the working classes, this came out as neighbourliness, among the middle classes as philanthropy.

    Mrs Thatcher, however, took on the individualist agenda in isolation. In her hands, it became simply a reaction against the corporate state and against any kind of collective activity at all. For her, the individual stood in opposition to society. ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’, she once famously remarked.(endnote: 4) It was an observation which revealed her confusion between the collectivist organisation of the state and the normal relationships of a coherent culture of shared objectives and endeavour. Her political project was conceived almost entirely around a narrow, utilitarian economic model of human behaviour.

    The result was an atomised creed which lent itself perfectly to political opportunism, populism and consumerism. It was set up explicitly around the pivotal figure of the individual consumer. It thus promoted a culture of individualism that destroyed attachments and lent itself to relativism, by telling everyone they were all equally entitled to make their several demands. There would be no arbitration between them from any fixed position embodying the common good, but it would be left to market forces to determine which of these demands would be the fittest to survive. Choice was elevated to be the sacred principle of this religion of the self.

    It was also a deeply philistine doctrine. It was certainly no respecter of tradition or culture. It was, after all, a revolutionary creed that pinned the blame for Britain’s decline on its institutions. Hostile to privilege and deference and by extension to the associated ethos of noblesse oblige, it was accordingly malevolently disposed to any distinctions between individuals based on the claims of education or professional training, and saw these instead as passports to feather-bedding that needed to be scrapped. It was suspicious of all élites as a conspiracy against the laity. In this, it had much in common with the left which similarly despised British institutions, except where it could control them, as for example in local government. So both left and right formed unholy alliances to level down all such distinctions and bring the élites to heel.

    In medicine, for example, the internal market which transformed health care from a service to a series of rolling business contracts was introduced in the late 1980s with no trials and virtually no professional consultation. And despite the ferocious rhetoric employed to denounce its introduction, the fact was that the managerial left loathed the medical profession and was quietly delighted with a system that transferred the power of hospital consultants to themselves.

    Similarly, the ‘cardboard cities’ that aroused so much indignation among the Conservative government’s opponents were also testimony to this unholy alliance. It was an article of faith among so-called liberals that the disintegrating family was an unchallengeable ‘right’, as was the freedom for paranoid schizophrenics and other mentally ill people to live free of institutional restraint. The Thatcher government, from the other side of the individualist mirror, cut welfare benefits and hospital beds in the interests of reducing the reach of the state.

    The result was teenagers who were fleeing from their fractured families and mentally ill people to whom no hospital could or would offer asylum living on the streets in cardboard boxes. Thus crude populism marched hand in hand with egalitarian ideology. And as the Thatcherite economic and political hegemony became more entrenched in the national arena, so the relativists of the left correspondingly dug themselves in more deeply behind the barricades of family, schools and identity politics in the private domain.


    At every opportunity, the government sloughed off responsibility. It set up a vast and burgeoning quangocracy, devolving the administration of government to appointed bodies or to outposts of the civil service. The effect was that lines of command became blurred and it became difficult to hold anyone to account for anything.

    Government was in fact constructed on a pyramid of lies. Facts were manipulated as a matter of routine to maintain the fiction that the business ethos which now prevailed in the public service had brought about improvements in public life. All of this contributed to an unparalleled cynicism about public life and a collapse in the authority, not merely of the government of the day but of the entire political class.

    If the style of government promoted a collapse of authority, the substance helped reinforce the culture of rampant individualism. One of the fundamental tenets of the Thatcher/Major government was that individuals should be freed from constraints; they could only flourish if the state was off their backs. Accordingly, deregulation was a key plank of their policies. There was even a Deregulation Minister. There was, however, no acknowledgment that a civilised society can only proceed if there are constraints on behaviour, that regulation is therefore a necessary part of life if a society is to try to avoid harm, and that freedom must be balanced against responsibility.

    Libertarian Tories, like the libertarian left, simply couldn’t understand that licence was not synonymous with the authentic liberal values of a free society. The unfettered market cannot produce a civilised culture because it sets citizens against each other for personal gain instead of working together for the common good. It is not underpinned by virtues such as trust, integrity or altruism but is a savage, unprincipled structure in which the weak are junked as trash.

    The most obvious illustration of the pernicious effects of this doctrine could be seen in the pockets of social devastation around the country where mass unemployment had laid whole communities waste. There was no public interest in the poverty this caused, nor in the depression and other illness that followed, nor in the erosion of the work ethic, nor in the destruction of one of the primary mechanisms for socialising young men, nor in the creation of that new phenomenon, the unmarriageable male whose prospects were so poor no sensible girl would have him. The damage done by mass and endemic unemployment was incalculable. Yet to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont, unemployment was ‘a price well worth paying.’ The message from that was that human beings were expendable.

    This Tory ideology was a debased form of liberalism. It stemmed from a reading of early liberals such as Adam Smith which had never been applied so narrowly and in such a distorted manner, and certainly not in the heyday of those Victorian values Mrs Thatcher admired so much. Adam Smith, as we saw earlier, believed that self-interest was the motor of the general interest and that the enterprise of individuals, when left free of regulation, was capable of carrying the standard of material well-being to undreamed-of heights.

    But the Tory ideologues wrenched this doctrine out of its surrounding moral context, ignoring both Smith’s observation that individuals had to apply self-restraint to control their selfish impulses and his prophetic fears about what might emerge from such an emphasis on business. ‘These are the disadvantages of a commercial spirit,’ he wrote. ‘The minds of men are contracted and rendered incapable of elevation, education is despised or at least neglected, and heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished. To remedy these defects would be an object worthy of serious attention.’

    Indeed, the defining motif of the Thatcher/Major years, the idea that economic self-interest was the principal motor of human behaviour and that crude materialism was all, was a travesty of Smith’s thinking. As long ago as 1921, R. H. Tawney had sprung to Smith’s defence against the same distortion. ‘No interpretation could be more misleading’, he wrote, than to present Smith and other early liberals as the apostles of selfish materialism. On the contrary, they had been classical exponents of the great traditions of English liberty which dated back to the Middle Ages. The fact was that these classical liberals had been rooted in traditions of moral authority upon which they explicitly depended, and which made their concept of liberty —which had been, after all, a defence against political and economic tyranny — into a noble ideal.


    The most corrosive effect the Tories had upon the civic order was the supreme importance they ascribed to business principles, which ceased to be a means to an end and became instead an end in themselves. This meant that values were judged solely by measurable outcomes. If outcomes could not be measured, then there could be no value. So productivity, efficiency and cost- effectiveness became the guiding principles of the age.

    Of course these attributes are important. But other values may matter just as much, if not more; yet these were written out of the script altogether. So those principles that humanise business, such as trust and loyalty, were trampled underfoot in the rush to rationalise, downsize and privatise. A condition of permanent insecurity was now built into the system as employees were sacked or uprooted.

    The rise and rise of managerialism meant a corresponding loss of attachments and the erosion of professionalism. Trust, after all, lies at the heart of the social contract with the professions. Employers used to trust professionals to do their job properly and in return they received benefits such as incremental promotion and job security. That contract was shattered in the interests of flexibility, ‘choice’ and above all the cutting of costs.

    The result was the erosion of the concept of public service, that transcendental value which acts as society’s invisible glue and which embodies a civic version of the common good.

    But because it is invisible, it didn’t figure in the brutal utilitarian criteria that measured value and success.

Related posts