One of the common complaints amongst the commentariat is that of the rise of the political class, Peter Oborne’s phrase; a collection of MPs who have risen through the ranks of parliamentary researcher to think tank worker before jumping into elected politics. This professionalisation of politics is portrayed as a bad thing, as though newspaper columnists would prefer politicians who are ignorant of politics to rule over them. This is equivalent to only ever hiring amateur plumbers to fix leaky pipes, and has a great deal to do with opinion-formers resenting the way in which their choice of career has ruled them out of holding real power.

However, it does contain a grain of truth, and it’s something which David Miliband’s decision to leave the people of South Shields behind in order to pursue a different career in the States illustrates: the professionalisation of politics means that it is perceived as a career ‘option’ by people leaving university rather a calling to serve the public, from which quitting half way through would be seen as churlish. It can be seen as such because it has such a clear structure for the scions of old Labour and Conservative families: after a spell in a think tank, one proves one’s worth through being a councillor, contesting an unwinnable seat, and then being landed with a plump safe seat. One can opt for this path without having to demonstrate that one actually cares about the people one represents; when you’ll win regardless of how much engagement with the public you do, as Labour does in South Shields, then one is never required to confront one’s duty to serve them.

David Miliband has realised that he is unlikely to progress further in politics, in this case thanks to the likelihood of his brother becoming Prime Minister by default. He has felt able to duck out half way through to take up another career path rather than sticking it out for a couple of years in order to do right by the people who voted him in. He’s able to do so because he’s in a safe seat: South Shields will vote Labour even if they put up the resurrected corpse of Jimmy Saville. The seat hasn’t changed hands since 1935. Any damage to his party is minimised as a result. It’s very clear that he views politics as a career in which flitting between jobs, as one could do in other walks of life, is not a bad thing. Safe seats facilitate this view; if you can get a parliamentary seat purely through moving around to the most appropriate place to get elected, then you’re never exposed to the need to fight for popular support, which is what separates MPs (theoretically) from technocrats.

If the commentariat really want to prevent the rise of career politicians, then they would do well to support electoral reform the next time it comes round. Only by requiring aspiring politicians to risk their future on the altar of the electorate do you prevent it from becoming a ‘career choice’.

‘INDIVIDUALISM RAMPANT!’ the headline might as well of read, rather than the more demographically mealy ‘Generation Self‘. Apparently the youth of today are a source of concern to their elders, this time less in the form of angry old Colonel Blimp types despairing about their lack of a work ethic and more in the form of decrepit socialists bemoaning their lack of attachment to the mighty institutions of the Collective Good.The young ‘uns don’t see the NHS as something they must lay down their very lives for, and are more likely to view those on benefits as being lazy scroungers rather than noble souls down on their luck.

And yet paradoxically (to the Guardian at least) they are bang-on message on subjects like gay rights, not being horrible racists, and women being equal to men. The notion that there could be some kind of connection between a belief in individualism and freedom to live the life you choose unconstrained by society is something that eludes that newspaper’s fine people of letters.

Liberalism is stronger in the coming generation, which should be a cause for celebration amongst liberals everywhere. However, it is important to understand why individualism is on the up. There are two competing narratives:

  • The Guardian reaches for the handy lefty trope of Thatcher being to blame for all the bad things that have ever happened. The children brought up under her austere regime know that this is a dog-eat-dog world and are determined to not be eaten by dogs of any kind. Indeed, some of them are breeding bigger and bigger dogs just to avoid this. Then, in a sign of how ruthlessly capitalistic these young people are, they’re selling them for a profit.
  • Conservatives blame the over-mighty State for taking away things people used to do together and making them the preserve of the faraway man in Whitehall. Remember those wonderful days when the only way to afford healthcare was by clubbing together with the other people who worked at the factory in the scant few hours you had outside of work to build collective institutions, and how if you weren’t working and got sick you basically just died? Weren’t they wonderful? LET’S GO BACK TO THAT.

The wonderful thing about these narratives, like so much political messaging, is that they can both be true at the same time. It is true that Government-promoted individualism will encourage individualism. It is also true that removing the responsibility of looking after your fellow man engendered by his or her need by shifting it into something you do at two steps removed through the taxation system will excuse you of the guilt of failing to help. You can then blame the NHS when it makes mistakes, because it’s making you guilty by proxy.

Outwith my sneering at both ends of the political spectrum, I do agree with them on the point that they share, which is that compassion is a virtue which should be fostered regardless of how individualistic you are; you can believe in absolute freedom from the individual, zero taxes on everything and a nightwatchman state and still think you should care about the least well off. Lack of compassion is a serious character flaw. The institutions originally charged with fostering compassion, the churches, still do good work at a local level, but at a macro level have bafflingly decided to devote their time to reacting against the sweeping tide of liberalism, which in itself says nothing about the compassion their creed requires. Compassion remains a requirement of a society in which people actively want to participate: a liberal society requires that people have the minimum of compassion for their fellows sufficient to be in favour of their freedom.

We therefore do require some kind of civil institution charged not with fostering a vision of the collective good, but with the compassion that can lead to people freely agreeing to such visions. . It can’t be the State; it will never be the job of Government to prescribe morality in a way which goes beyond the law. It can’t be the churches; the metaphysical commitments they require for their compassion are now beyond the interest of much of British society. And it certainly can’t be the unions; they have too frequently revealed themselves to be the guardians of sectional interests. So what can it be?

Answers on a postcard, please.