Seeking solutions that tap into humanity's highest virtues
Earlier this week I was asked to speak at a conference for the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC), in particular to set out some of the fundamental problems facing Western society.
As one of our founders, Phillipa Stroud, says: ARC aims to explore a better story for the family, community and nation, while also exploring how each individual can be empowered to live a fulfilled, responsible life as a citizen. We will wrestle with the need to responsibly steward the environment and our natural resources so that all people can benefit from access to affordable energy, while also mitigating against future environmental challenges.
Part of my speech references the dramatic rise in children who go to school wearing nappies, and the toll this will have on the children affected. Many misreporting me by suggesting that working mothers are to blame - that is clearly not what I said. The root cause is complex, but throughout my speech i talk about the difficulties that families have in trying to provide for themselves, not least because of a superficial focus on GDP growth at all costs, even when that means mounting debt, exacerbating inequality and devaluing care for the young and the old.
"Not so long ago we thought the West had triumphed.
Western society - with its defining attributes of freedom, prosperity and happiness - was believed by some to be the pinnacle of civilisation. In 1992 Fukuyama famously wrote that we may be “witnessing the end of history, the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government". But, today, the Western Idea seems anything but final or universal.
Those triplet trophies of freedom, prosperity and happiness are perhaps more fragile than at any time since the war.
But our decline has not been brought about by military defeat, or economic collapse or natural disaster. Rather it has come from within - from the fraying of our social fabric - the network of associations that hold together our families, neighbourhoods and nations. The surest sign of Western decline can be found in the evidence of demographic change.
By definition a successful civilisation is one that endures, but the fall in fertility rates across the West threatens the future existence of our society .If bringing a child into the world is a sign of hope for the future then, in the West, that hope is in short supply.
As Paul Morland and Philip Pilkington’s paper for this conference makes clear, unless fertility rate decline is reversed, we are heading for a future of certain economic stagnation or destabilising mass immigration.
But we don’t need warnings about the future to alert us to decline. We can feel the social fabric fraying around us. At every level of society – families, neighbourhood, the nation – our social covenant - the shared understanding of identity and responsibility - is under strain. Nowhere is this strain more evident than in the erosion of family life.
The family is the building block of society. The family is the unit that ensures children are loved, protected, fed, nurtured and raised in the virtues they need to become the responsible citizens of tomorrow. But family breakdown has become epidemic, with nearly half of British children experiencing the dissolution of their parents’ relationship.
The collapse of marriage rates, particularly among low income groups, has exacerbated poverty and disadvantage - the impact of family breakdown on children is profound, for children it is the single biggest predictor of poor teen mental health and correlated with worse outcomes in every aspect of adult life.
The support of extended family has been weakened and loneliness increased as young people have moved away from their communities. 1 in 7 British adults now take antidepressants and suicide is the most common cause of death for young men. Our families are in crisis, and the social fabric of our neighbourhoods is also unravelling.
Declining membership organisations and religious attendance have eroded a sense of common purpose. A reluctance to prosecute petty crimes like shoplifting, and a failure to integrate immigrants have eroded social trust.
De-industrialisation and globalisation have ripped the economic heart out of many of our towns. At its peak the steel works in Stocksbridge, a town in my constituency, was not only the town’s source of good employment for over 10 000 local men, It also founded many of the town’s civic society organisations. As manufacturing has declined, communities have been left bereft without a shared economic endeavour. Our families and neighborhoods are caught in a spiral of decline.
And our nations? Well - the last few weeks have shattered any remaining illusions that our nations are cohesive or united as those who hate the West have marched on many of our great cities.
A Kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
At every level – family, neighbourhood and nation we are increasingly weak and divided. Unless we can find a way to repair our social fabric, the decline will surely be terminal.
So how did this decline occur? How in the pursuit of freedom, prosperity and happiness are we losing all three?
Well the trauma and suffering of the World Wars gave way to hedonism. After witnessing the appalling consequences of authoritarianism, we were determined to end all forms of oppression. But in doing so we began to mistake all boundaries for tyranny, throwing off established shared norms and values that were the source of our freedom, rather than its antithesis. Boundaries such as marriage, the sanctity of life, parental responsibility, shared heritage and traditions, duty to our nations. Without these cultural guardrails our social fabric unravelled.
In the words of my friend Danny Kruger, the Order of our mutually dependent common life together gave way to the Idea of the individual as a fully autonomous agent. The Idea began to distort the noble aims of freedom, prosperity and happiness.
Where once we understood freedom as possessing the virtues to control and regulate our desires, we now perceive it as the right to complete individual autonomy, even freedom from material reality.
Where once we understood prosperity as the ability of families and communities to provide for themselves, we now pursue superficial GDP growth at all costs, even when that means mounting debt, exacerbating inequality and devaluing care for the young and the old.
And where happiness was once seen as the fortunate by-product of a combination of luck and a well-ordered life, we began to seek instead the avoidance of all emotional discomfort.
When the cracks began to show, when the Idea met reality, instead of retracing our steps we doubled down. We began to look to the state to provide where our hollowed out families and communities had failed.
Nowhere are the disastrous results of this distorted pursuit of freedom, prosperity and happiness more evident than in the damage being done to our children.
To use a very practical illustration, consider the rising number of young children who start school in the UK still wearing nappies or diapers for some of you in the room. Now, I never thought I would make a speech about toilet training toddlers to 1500 world leaders but please bear with me. This may sound like a trivial issue. But the cost to schools is considerable, in fact, unaffordable with additional full time paid adults required just to change nappies and clear up mess. And the long-term cost to those children is immense - a child who has not been trained in the most rudimentary of skills by the age of 5 has little chance of being trained in any of the other essential skills and virtues required for a successful life.
Just 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to send a child to school in nappies, but now 90% of Reception teachers report having children in their class who are not toilet trained.
How has this happened?
Well toilet training is difficult. It involves getting your hands, and most of your house dirty. It is not a pleasant experience for parent or child, but it is necessary. From parents it requires the total sacrifice of individual autonomy to stay physically close to your child at all times. Potty training can take weeks of dedication to the task. This is increasingly impossible when our GDP obsessed economic system demands that even mothers of very small children leave their infants in daycare to return to the workplace.
And potty training requires a firm belief that a child’s emotional discomfort is sometimes necessary in the short term, for his or her long term best interests.
Our understanding of happiness has become so distorted that many parents now believe that they should do whatever it takes to shield their child from discomfort, a belief that is incompatible with successful potty training or indeed the training of a child in any virtues.
In a number of other different trends - soaring childhood obesity, smartphone addiction, children believing they can change their gender or those who are addicted to violent pornography - we see the consequences for children of the fraying of our social fabric.
We now have an emerging generation who have never experienced the security of a strong social fabric who have lost hope in ever enjoying the same freedom, prosperity and happiness as their parents and grandparents. Crippled with anxiety without the boundaries of social norms, robbed of economic capital by our addiction to debt, fearful of offence because we’ve taught them to be defined by their feelings. To many of our young, society is a failure, and they have become the perfect breeding ground for an ideological radicalism that seeks to overturn - to subvert - what is left of our social fabric.
As a politician - and an optimist - I am usually asked to offer solutions, but I have drawn the short straw at this conference and have been charged instead with the depressing task of describing the problem.
But permit me to offer this.
Freedom, prosperity and happiness are not values, they are not a map, they are not even principles. They may be the fruits of a successful society but they are not its roots.
No good tree bears bad fruit, and to restore the fruit we must first attend to the roots. The true roots – the foundation stones - of Western civilisation are not freedom, prosperity and happiness, but the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful.
This was our story, and over the next few days we will explore together how it can be our better story again.
If we seek first the true, the good and the beautiful, perhaps real freedom, prosperity and happiness can be ours once more."