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Cameron, character and councils

January 21, 2010

It’s taken me a while to get around to blogging about David Cameron’s speech on character and responsibility at the launch of the Demos Character Inquiry last week. But it’s worth returning to because it was a serious and compelling speech which gave a crucial insight into Cameron’s political philosophy while indicating that this narrative is a lot better developed and more coherent that some critics have suggested.

The basic thesis was that a good society is made up of good people, but good people are not just born they’re made, the products of effective parenting. It’s therefore a crucial role for the State to encourage and support families in bringing up children.

As well as the core narrative there were some pretty meaty policy announcements: more money for sure start, extra health visitors, tax breaks for couples in civil partnerships.

Most of the media attention focused on the claim that “warmth not wealth” is the key determinant of a child’s life chances and debated whether this was an accurate interpretation of Demos’ research on character, whether it meant Cameron really was a progressive conservative and which of those terms carried more weight.

I thought the focus on what people are like and not just what they do was interesting and important but raised some key questions about social character which are likely to be of interest to local authorities and which I would have liked to see further reflection on (perhaps the Demos Inquiry will consider them).

One of the key contributions to political debate in the last couple of years is what we might call a situationist account of human behaviour. The idea that we are don’t always make rational, autonomous decisions but that our behaviour is influenced (or even determined?) by the interaction between our hardwired behavioural characteristics and our environment. The most influential recent example of this was perhaps the libertarian paternalism of Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge which analysed how behaviour change could be driven by manipulation of the choice architecture of our environment. Cameron trades on the situationist account to some extent in his insistence that good character is formed not simply inherited. But he doesn’t carry this all the way through. His analysis implies not only that a good society will be made up of good people but that good people in and of themselves constitute a good society. This is a central component of his shift from a Big State to a Big Society.  But while good people may be a necessary condition of a good society it’s not clear that they’re a sufficient one. Famous psychological experiments such as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment or Milgram’s electric shock experiment seem to show that context can easily make otherwise ‘good ‘ people act in way that are violent cruel or inhumane. So as well as good people, you need a choice architecture – a context – that allows them to be good and to make a good society.

How is this to be managed? We have to decide to what extent this is the role of the state and to what extent it can be accomplished by civil society; thus begging exactly the question that Cameron assumes the answer to.

For local government this is a crucial question. If the ultimate measure of a council’s  success is the well being of the community it serves, then local government must take a view on to what extent and how they manage the conditions that allow and encourage good people to make themselves a good society

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 23, 2010 12:06 pm

    “The basic thesis was that a good society is made up of good people, but good people are not just born they’re made, the products of effective parenting. It’s therefore a crucial role for the State to encourage and support families in bringing up children.”

    These are fine ideas and relatively simple to implement.
    Government is very erudite but the the problem is when these ideas arrive at the local level.

    ONE, example is the unseen, low self-esteem promulgated by local authorities who allow rubbish to be piled on the streets for days before collection.

    Children have to walk through this and come to see it as the ‘norm’ as do already innured adults. Therefore, what chance for the following generation?

    This link will take you to the website funded by the Ministry of Justice

    http://www.fixmystreet.com/rss/1527,807/2

    The first photograph is of a pile of rubbish opposite:

    Northam Town Council offices in North Devon

    in Torridge District Council’s area.

    The rubbish was there for a week and is a regular event. Piles of black bags with their contents strewn on the streets are to be seen throughout Appledore as is evidenced by the other photographs, some even left alongside the Cenotaph each week. Particularly, as a barrage of complaints have been ingnored, on Remembrance Sunday.

    This, over the Christmas period when children are visiting or home on holiday, service personnel fortunate enough to be alive and spending Christmas with their close ones. Rats, dead or running are a common sight in this area.

    If it is allowed to continue, what message does (has) this give/n to the children of the region as they grow into adulthood.

    I am only speaking of the absolute basics in life, this should not be an option for Local Authorities and I hope Government will see that its attempts to create strong, cohesive communities with well-balanced children, is being thwarted at ground level by those, who unlike our armed forces, refuse to do their duty – those in Local Authorities.

    Civic Pride is non-existent and breeds disaffection, which is now filling the world.

    A situation exists where two dogs share the same tail (Local Authority), which wags the Government at one end and the Citizens at the other.

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