David Cameron on the ‘failure of moral leadership’
Politicians increasingly operate as though there were no Judgement Day in this life, and certainly none in the next. And while they may dismiss the latter as superstitious folly, the absence of the former ought to concern every democrat and all who are remotely concerned with such outdated notions as justice, liberty or fairness.
But like a wise and learned archbishop (not yet quite oxymoronic), Mr Cameron has climbed into his pulpit (Thomson Reuters in London) and delivered a fine sermon on individual morality and political ethics. While the pews may have been full of the undiscerning and ignorant (or indeed empty as they attend to more urgent matters of Christmas), for those with ears to hear, it was possibly the most important speech he has made since, err, well, for a very long time indeed.
As this Labour government dies and Gordon Brown atrophies, to the masses are bequeathed a frightening inheritance of colossal debt, negative equity and perpetual mortgage. Mr Cameron observes that the financial services industry has had its name ‘blackened’. And by association the United Kingdom and the City of London have also had their reputations sullied.
But instead of promising the earth, or vacuous ‘change’, or some vague notion that things will be better under the Conservatives, Mr Cameron has called for retribution against those who are responsible for financial wrongdoing. They must, he says, be held to account: ‘There should be a day of reckoning. A day when we would not flinch from spelling out the rightful consequences of irresponsible behaviour.’
Enter the spirit of Amos, Hosea, Joel, Micah...
This is good and wholesome stuff – a cause-and-effect theme straight out of Proverbs, and a promise and warning of judgement consistent with the message of the prophets of old.
Mr Cameron said there should not be ‘one law for the rich’ and another for everyone else. Thus distancing himself from the perception - however unfair – that the Conservatives simply ‘looked after their own’ and left the poor to fend for themselves. By demanding justice for the poor and punishment for the rich and powerful who have exploited those poor, Mr Cameron has shown an authentic streak of religio-political righteousness. He notes in the US that ‘no stone is being left unturned’ in their investigations into financial impropriety, particularly in the mortgage industry. The FBI has deployed 177 agents to investigate the big financial institutions, and the hedge-fund manager Bernard Madoff has been charged with fraud. In the UK, one is struck by the alarmingly complacent approach being adopted by the Government or by any investigating authority. And so Mr Cameron asks:
"In the home of capitalism, a sense of fair play is dramatically in evidence. Why aren't we doing the same in Britain? Doctors who behave irresponsibly get struck off. Bankers who behave irresponsibly should face professional consequences. And, for sure, if anyone is found to have behaved criminally they must be prosecuted. Are the government seriously saying that nothing untoward could have happened over here? How can anyone believe that in the worst financial crisis of our lifetime no proper and thorough investigation needs to happen? If we're going to build a strong and fair society, individuals must carry the consequences of their own actions - regardless of who they are, where they come from, and what their background is."
This is coherent Conservatism to the core. He articulates personal responsibility in the context of corporate ethics and social philosophy. If the poor are to be liberated from state oppression to take responsibility for their own decisions, then a fortiori should the rich and powerful not be shielded from state retribution when their criminality and negligence have dire consequences for society’s most vulnerable. A government which prosecutes the benefit cheat to reclaim a few thousand pounds is acting justly because it is taxpayers’ money which is stolen. But such a government must ensure that it also prosecutes the bank directors in order to reclaim the millions and billions they have purloined from depositors and (now) the taxpayers, for the law should be applied fairly and equally. The alternative is moral hazard and social and economic chaos.
Pleasure, money and power present challenges to sincere moral judgements, and conspire to ensure that such judgements are not always determined by the goodness of the reasons. What is this goodness? What is this reason? What is the Christian understanding of human and social relationships and what is that God requires of us in those relationships? That we love our neighbour, certainly, but also that charity towards them goes beyond, but always includes justice. An adequate regard for justice always involves not only a concern that justice be done and injustice prevented or remedied, but also resistance to and, where possible, the abolition of institutions that systematically generate injustice and the punishment of those who perpetuate the evil.
We do well to honour those Christians who have comprehended what charity and justice required: John Newton, William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, Franz Jägerstetter. But the need for the eradication of injustice is ongoing.
And David Cameron has just placed himself firmly on the side of the righteous.