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31 December 2013

New Year Leader: The moral challenges of our time

When people say that politicians are "all the same", they are objecting to our technocratic, managerial political culture. Throughout 2013, figures from outside Westminster unearthed a public yearning for leaders with the moral clarity to face our present

By New Statesman

It is in times of economic scarcity that the need for moral leadership is greatest. The financial crisis and years of austerity have returned to the fore the ethical questions that were too often ignored during the pre-crash era. How should limited resources be allocated? What constitutes the good society? What are the values that should underpin our economy? Can individualism and the common good be reconciled?

The public’s disillusionment with politicians can partly be explained by their failure to address these issues convincingly. When politics is reduced to a game in which the parties continually seek to outmanoeuvre each other for tactical, short-term advantage, it is unsurprising that the public turns away. The frequent lament that they are “all the same” is an attack not, as is often thought, on a perceived lack of policy divergence but on the managerial, technocratic culture that they embody.

Behind this appearance of apathy, there is a yearning for answers to the moral challenges of our time and for national leaders who can at least attempt to provide them – even more so since the death of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world’s most respected statesman.

However, one of the trends of 2013 was the emergence of leaders outside politics who have shown considerable moral guidance. Since taking office in March, Pope Francis has revived his Church’s fortunes by reorienting it away from the conservative obsessions of gay marriage, abortion and contraception and towards issues of economic equality and social justice. Through emblematic gestures such as carrying his own suitcase, living in a modest hostel and embracing a disfigured man, he has communicated his vision of a church “of the poor, for the poor”. His moral denunciation of “unbridled capitalism” has resonated all the more widely as a result. After decades of decline, church attendance among Catholics has risen significantly across the world, including in Britain.

Over the same period, Justin Welby, who was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury two days after the inauguration of Pope Francis, has reaffirmed the Church of England’s status as a defender of the most vulnerable. He has condemned the coalition government’s cap on benefit increases for making children and families “pay the price for high inflation, rather than the government”, denounced the “usurious lending” of payday loan companies and criticised the banks for asking what is “legal” and never what is “right”. Like Pope Francis, he has demonstrated his Church’s values through deeds as well as words.

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One need not share their faith – and the New Statesman is a resolutely secular magazine – to respect the moral clarity that both Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby have brought to issues of economic justice. Striking, too, was how the comedian Russell Brand, who has millions of young fans, succeeded in provoking a remarkable debate when he guest-edited the New Statesman at the end of October. With his insistence that “the solution [to deepening inequality and rampant consumerism] has to be primarily spiritual” and his declaration that profit is “the most profane word we have”, he commanded the national conversation for a fortnight in a way few politicians can.

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Neither the Pope nor the Archbishop of Canterbury – and certainly not Mr Brand – is standing for public election; they do not face the same struggle to reconcile competing interests as politicians must contend with. But our political class can learn from how they have engaged with fundamental questions and revived previously dormant debates.

The more thoughtful of our MPs from all three main parties have recognised the need for a different kind of politics. In his George Lansbury Memorial Lecture in November, Jon Cruddas, Labour’s policy review co-ordinator, called for a “reimagined socialism” that is “romantic, not scientific; humane and warm; passionate yet humble” and that “pushes back against party orthodoxy, careerism and transactional politics”. Five years after the crash, the desire for a remoralisation of our politics and society remains deep. But we still await the politician who can inspire the many as well as lead the transformation of our democracy.

We wish all our readers the very best for 2014.