Moral clarity

It's time the left found a language with which to defend its core values

I was struck by something my colleague Mehdi Hasan said in his post yesterday about the brutal, and fatal, attack on 67-year-old Ekram Haque outside a mosque in Tooting, south London. The left, Mehdi wrote,

needs a strong, wide-ranging but balanced narrative on violent crime, and youth offending, that goes beyond the obvious socio-economic factors to explore the growing moral and cultural void at the heart of modern British society. Indeed, the left needs to reclaim the language of morality.

This resonates with Stuart White's analysis in the NS of an emerging preoccupation on the centre left with "remoralising society". Stuart detects a deep moral anxiety about "a social ethos that is individualistic, consumerist, materialistic" and its corollary, a "concern to promote a society in which people lead lives that are much more informed by a sense of the common good". The implication of this account, and of Mehdi's remarks, is that the left has for too long felt uncomfortable with "values"-talk, wrongly believing it to be the preserve of the moralising right. That is a historic victory for the right -- historic in the sense that it's the result of a decades-long "war of position" waged by conservative intellectuals.

Whatever the reasons for the left's abdication of the language of fundamental values -- and I think they are various, having to do with, among other things, the influence of a debased, relativistic version of liberal pluralism and the lingering effects of a marxisant mistrust of the language of morality as fatally utopian -- this is a defeat that must be reversed. Susan Neiman makes this point in her wonderful book Moral Clarity:

Right-wing talk of moral clarity and honour and heroism is often empty, but that is not the same as being meaningless. Empty concepts remain concepts, in search of an application. The left, by contrast, has deflated the concepts themselves. What the left lacks isn't values, but a standpoint from which all those values make sense -- and a language with which to defend them.


Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage