The heart and soul: Why we need morality in politics

In a 1981 interview with the Times, Margaret Thatcher said of her politics, ‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’. Thatcherism was more than just an economic programme but a proselytising mission, and this has implications for modern readers. Since the 1990s, we have had a deep lack of moral conviction in politics, and this has cheapened our political culture. In a world where spin seems to matter more than substance, morality is the way back to the more engaged politics which we are in desperate need of. For many, this may seem antithetical to the modern idea of politics; to create a government that is neutral on what it means to live a good life. And while morality in politics has been the reserve of theocrats and bigots, there is no reason why this needs to be so.

Since the 1990s, we have had a deep lack of moral conviction in politics, and this has cheapened our political culture.

It would be useful to begin with why the idea of morality in politics rightly has such as bad reputation in the 21stcentury. It is true that moralists of the past such as Mary Whitehouse argued against the liberal reforms of the 1960s such as the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion. For many people like me, this has created a fear of pushing our own moral views on others, becoming just as bad as Whitehouse only from another perspective. Morality, however, cannot be separated from politics even if we wanted it to. Additionally, by rejecting a moralistic approach I believe liberals give away ground to others who do make moral appeals to voters. 

Jonhathan Haidt in his fantastic book, The Righteous Mind, makes a compelling case for the role of morals in politics. He compares our brain to an elephant and rider; the rider the rational part of our mind, the elephant the emotional and moral side. While the rider may like to pretend they are in charge, we all know who the boss truly is. For Haidt, this gives an understanding of politics that a purely rational explanation cannot. Liberals for decades have wondered why Conservatives or Republicans, especially from poorer backgrounds, vote for a party that penny pinches on welfare while cutting taxes for the rich. Haidt argues that this misunderstands voting; conservatives do vote in their interests, just their moral interests. His framing of morality as the prime way in which people understand politics and voting is persuasive, asking questions about how politicians should best appeal to voters. 

While I do believe politics is inherently moral, I also think that this is not necessarily a bad thing, and that we can use morality to help promote a healthier political debate. To bring this back to Thatcher, she is a good example of a ‘conviction politician’, a term she used about herself. While this can be understood as someone who stands up for their fundamental beliefs against criticism, I think it is more than this. A conviction politician is someone who links individual morality to politics. Thatcher, for example, saw privatization and the expansion of home ownership both as politically desirable, but also a moral imperative. A freer market would help to produce more independent and self-reliant people, which was the ultimate aim of her politics – to change the ‘heart and soul’. Thatcher’s morality is one of the reasons why so many love and hate her. One of her greatest opponents, Tony Benn, I think is another good example of morality in politics. For him, greater industrial democracy and economic redistribution was both a political and moral good, and so he would fit this definition of a conviction politician too. These two great conviction politicians helped to make 1980s politics what it was, with two political ideologies representing different moral visions of the country. I don’t think anyone can say the same thing today. 

It will require not just political, but moral change to fully address these problems.

For those who feel disenfranchised from politics, I think this is the solution. When I see Starmer and Sunak, the thing that strikes me most is their lack of moral vision. Both seem content to tinker with GDP, rather than address the most important issues. This is perhaps reflected in the lack of engagement with politics, with membership of both main political parties down since the 1950s, and voter turnout down from 83% in 1950 to 67% in 2019. To bring these people back to politics, we need to have a greater moral appeal. In a world where issues like climate change require national and international solutions; perhaps our individualistic society cannot fully live up to this task? If not, it will require not just political, but moral change to fully address these problems. To finish, I’ll end with a quote from Robert Kennedy, who said of Gross National Product in 1968, ‘It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’.

Image credit: Commons Procession to Lords (State Opening of Parliament 2023) by Robin S. Taylor, licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped from original.

Image description: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer speaking in the Houses of Parliament.