Politics & Society
October Sun 16, 2011
Now that the party conference season has ended, secularists in Britain will be alarmed by the new politics of preaching. First there was Ed Miliband's prophetic inveighing against "predators" and "asset strippers". Then David Cameron condemned "can't-do sogginess" and announced his "gospel of getting on". And earlier we had Clegg's self-righteous apologia for his own opportunism and lack of principle. Beyond the soundbites, religious ideas really are shaping the post-liberal shift of British politics. Nowhere was this clearer than in Miliband's call for a virtuous economy and a moral polity. His critique of vested interests in the name of the common good is reminiscent of Jewish prophets holding the kings to standards of justice and righteousness. His appeal to responsibility and a culture of give and take echoes practices of reciprocal duty and mutual help that are characteristic of the Abrahamic faiths and other world religions. Crucially, Miliband's passionate – albeit poorly delivered – defence of virtue, tradition, community, the family and relationships has not just set the agenda of this party conference season. It also provides the clearest contours yet of post-crisis politics. Little wonder that Cameron followed suit and repeated virtually all of these themes in his address. To be fair, on education he went further than Miliband and denounced a culture of mediocrity promoted by much of the liberal left: "They practise oppression and call it equality." That, too, is a recognition of Britain's post-liberal shift. Much more than Cameron, however, Miliband has captured the popular mood and the rising public anger over corporate rip-off or the recklessness of the country's ruling elite. Whether the "squeezed middle", Murdoch's "evil empire" or the heavy-handed response to the riots, the Labour leader has been ahead of the curve on the need for a robust public ethic. Meanwhile his Conservative counterpart has played catch-up. Nor is it a case of Miliband parking his red tanks on the blue lawn of Cameron's "big society". The rise of Phillip Blond's Red Toryism undoubtedly preceded the advent of Maurice Glasman's Blue Labour. But Glasman has been closer to Miliband and the Labour leadership than Blond ever was to Cameron and Tory HQ. In the unfolding contest over Britain's paradoxical politics, blue Ed has repeatedly outflanked red Dave. Indeed, Miliband is already more radical and more traditional than Cameron. Blue Ed's compelling critique of capitalism marks a break with the prevailing orthodoxy of the past 30 years – the heretical worship of wealth, power and pleasure that has eroded ordinary morality, civic duty and the bonds binding together society. Like Marxism, liberalism is secular because it invests the economic with quasi-sacred significance. Thus the problem is not so much that the liberal creed seeks to privatise the sacred but rather that it sacralises the profane.
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