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11 May, 2015

After the elections: Can Britain create a moral economy?

David Marquand speaking at the TIGE Talk 'After the elections'The distinguished political philosopher David Marquand has called for a national conversation to tackle inequalities woven into the fabric of British society. He was speaking in the London centre of Initiatives of Change on 5 May, two days before the general election. 

Professor Marquand, former Labour MP who became a founder of the Social Democratic Party, and Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford from 1996 to 2002, emphasised the need for reform that is based on a ‘moral economy’. ‘A revolution of sentiment has to precede a revolution of policy,’ he said. ‘You cannot force change down society’s throat by a fiat of the central government.’

Sustainable change needed to be organic, rising from a shared sense of values. The general election had brought to the fore cracks in the system that shows the unsustainable nature of the prevailing political order.

In his TIGE Talk, on Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy, Professor Marquand propounded the need for a new philosophy that encapsulates a clear national vision and identity. This is also the theme of his latest book, Mammon’s Kingdom, which was launched in its paperback edition at his talk. In it, he calls for a public debate on the need to create a moral economy.

Marquand described Britain as the most unequal of the long established democracies, with asymmetrical relationships as one of its biggest challenges. Constructing a better future required a moral economy, he argued, defining it as ‘the system of values and beliefs that tell economic agents how to behave’.

A better economic system, he said, will not come from the experts but through interplay between the public and theorists. ‘The moral economy we want is going to emerge through the crisscross of debates in meetings like this. This is where the moral economy will be born if at all.’ He asserted that 'commercialism erodes commonality and therefore erodes democracy.'

Expanding on the need for a national conversation, Marquand insisted there is need to refine and thrash out the differences in the system. He argued that the ‘public realm’ has been demeaned over the years while remorseless inequality flourishes. ‘Inequality brings with it social pathologies—humiliation suffered by those at the bottom of the pile.’

He acknowledges there has been a wakeup call around the country. Scotland, a case in point of people taking control, alludes to a bigger question of what happens after devolution.

What next after the elections?

Audience participation at the David Marquand TIGE TalkOn democratic values, Professor Marquand called for a rethink on the British constitution. He explained that constitutions embody and transmit values. However, the British constitution has embodied and transmitted hierarchical values which should not be allowed to fester any longer. He noted that the country’s original transition to democracy had not been born out of conviction but convenience as the same institutions, habits and mentality of a plutocracy were carried over. These issues are now bubbling up to the surface and the result of the elections, therefore, must create room for conversations on the constitution.

The elections were a moment of truth for Britain to decide the course of a new future, he said. ‘A new constitution must have underpinning it a moral basis of what sort of country we want to be. Not just laws but moral code.’ Though not a believer himself, he paid tribute to the role of the Abraham faith traditions in promoting a moral society. It ‘beggars belief’ when secularists say religious faith has no place in politics, he said. Faith, he added, is underpinned by the insight that no man is an island.

A sense of urgency underlies Marquand’s message, especially when he unpacks the myths of a free market economy. This forms a major crux of his book, Mammon’s Kingdom, which he described as a response to the financial crises of 2008. Drawing an analogy between this crisis and that of 1929, when political leaders at the time decisively jettisoned the economic orthodoxy and embraced a new ideal, Professor Marquand decried the lack of a political will in this dispensation to make the same call. ‘Why is there no search for a new public morality?’ he asked. The answer probably lies in the fact that no new narrative has emerged to challenge the market fetish.

This all culminates in the need for a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking and challenging the system. So the question he posed at the beginning of the talk remains: can we create a moral economy? Professor Marquand certainly thinks so. 

Report by Doris Okenwa

Photos by Davina Patel

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