St Paul's Institute

Had Enough of Elections? Let's Talk About What's Good.

by David Rouch

Posted: 27 Apr 2017

What inspires you?  For most of us, it's probably not election campaigns.  So we in the UK can be forgiven for experiencing a certain sense of fatigue following the announcement of a general election to be held on 8 June - or, more particularly, at the prospect of having the combined electoral forces of politicians, party faithful, pollsters and pundits trained upon us.  It is less than a year since the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, less than two since the last general election, and less than three since the Scottish referendum.  But we have also been force-fed a diet of elections and plebiscites in other Western nations - we've become, in varying degrees, unwilling political spectators of the sometimes problematic or even bizarre elsewhere. 

This is not to downplay the importance of the processes concerned, or the weighty subject matter of some of the debates they have unleashed.  Indeed, huge questions about what is consistent with the common good and personal wellbeing - questions about what we value and why - lie below the surface.  But, that is exactly where those questions seem to remain much of the time: unacknowledged, unarticulated and unexamined.  Perhaps that is the real reason why Brenda from Bristol seemed to speak for a nation in responding to the UK election announcement in her interview with a BBC reporter ("you're joking - what another one?"): perhaps these political processes are running dangerously low on substance; desiccated; detached from what has the potential to inspire.

Confronted by vast global cultural, economic and demographic change, it seems that we in the West are suffering from an identity crisis.  It is a crisis that political parties, at least in their current form, are ill-equipped to handle and largely duck: it is easier by far to continue to rehearse previously reassuring mythologies and juggle with the usual menu of policy options - attempting to address the presenting symptoms of anxiety rather looking at their sources.  But they are not alone and, to be clear, there are no simple solutions: we are not well placed to develop a new consensus on what good might look like in this context and why.  Our society has manifestly become more diverse over the last half century.  That has its strengths, but also makes consensus harder to build.  Further, in spite of the many benefits of liberalism, the coalescence of social, cultural and economic liberalism into the current form of liberal fundamentalism, and the emphasis on the individual before community, makes it even more difficult to conceive of a consensus of this sort.

Yet we continue to share our humanity: a vision for furthering the common good and personhood within that, and fostering public and private virtue, has the ability to re-enchant and inspire.  It is the true end of politics.  Until we recognise that and engage meaningfully with it, our electoral ennui is likely to continue.  Worse, we may find that, like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, we are condemned to rolling electoral boulders repeatedly up hills only to see them come crashing down to where they began.  Most importantly, however, we may be missing out on what can enrich our common life, nourish us as people (rather than creating atomised individuals) and make for a public realm that is less prone to some of the failures we've seen in economic and political life, less prone to the erosion of meaning and truth.

Addressing this calls for a different sort of public dialogue: one less focused on shuffling the policy and personality deck, and more on what we value and why as a basis for generating fresh policy ideas; one that concentrates on the common good, personhood and virtue.  So, as the call to mobilise goes out to the ranks of politically active and the huge electoral machine once again cranks into action - and after June when they've all been sent back to barracks - St Paul's Institute will be doing its bit to foster just that.  Indeed, work is already in progress: for the last few months, the Institute has been developing an initiative to engage constructively with what has come out of recent political processes in the West from the perspective of the common good in an attempt to help generate positive practical social and policy outcomes.  The initiative has three elements:

  • First, seeking to stimulate a broad-based public discussion looking at the current experience of economic, political and cultural insecurity and individualism with an emphasis on the common good rather than just individual rights and collective economic utility. 
  • Secondly, and more particularly, helping people scrutinise conflicting values about free movement of people and capital, key themes that have dominated political debates in the UK and elsewhere. 

  • Third, in that context, exploring shared desires for the common good and personhood, as a basis for a constructive response to existing anxieties both as an end in itself and to generate fresh policy ideas.

Planning is underway to create an opportunity for you to begin this public discussion, potentially before 8 June, under the iconic dome of St Paul's Cathedral, that great national and spiritual meeting point.  But more of that later.

About this author

David Rouch is Chairman of the Institute's Advisory Council and a partner in a leading City law firm, in its financial institutions group.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.