Thursday, February 25, 2010

Character for Liberals

It's not often you can say this, but there is an interesting passage in Derborah Orr's column for the Guardian today:

In 2008, before the recession bit, there was much talk on the left about how to revive the concept of "good character", except that it had a new name: "pro-social behaviour". Avner Offer, professor of economic history at Oxford, suggested that consumer capitalism itself, by providing a constant source of novelty, undermined "self-control, both cognitive and social".

Matthew Taylor, Blair's former head of strategy, now head of the RSA, made the excellent point that "the reason we find the concept of character difficult is because of class conflict in British society. There was a sense that good character was handed down from a ­patrician class to the great unwashed."

I am sure Matthew Taylor is right. I am reminded of the comment by the former Tory minister George Walden, in his iconoclastic book on education We Should Know Better, that character is:
a quality, it appears, confined to the not very clever products of private schools, and inimitable elsewhere.
Yet I do not want to give up on character altogether. For it has connections with the sort of self-actualisation and individuality hymned in Mill's On Liberty. As I wrote in an article on that book a couple of years ago:

Writing in Prospect magazine last year, Richard Reeves put it well:

for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual. "He who lets the world… choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation," he writes. "He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties." For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life.

Or as The Levellers said more recently: "There's only one way of life, and that's your own, your own, your own."

And, though Offner may well be right to see consumer capitalism as undermining self-control, we should not ignore the role of the state in the process too.

Because the modern Labour Party's periods in government have resulted in the dwindling in the rich tapestry of organisations through which the working class used to organise and educate themselves. These functions have been taken over by the state and Labour theorists have seen this process as an unproblematic sign of progress.

It may well be that this process has operated just as much under Conservative governments - Mrs Thatcher was a great centraliser - but it will not do to blame it all on consumer capitalism.

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