England & Wales

Cameron, character and councils

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