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What Should We Really Value?

The end is in sight and there is light at the end of the tunnel – though let us hope that is not just a train coming the other way – in our epic journey through the work of David Goodhart in ‘Head Hand Heart’.  After covering his ideas across several blogs in the last year or two, I am left with no alternative but to conclude it is the most influential book I have ever read, not least in highlighting a series of ideas that I find myself agreeing with over and over again.

Regular readers will know my ongoing frustrations with our current crop of politicians, so I was especially interested when Goodhart quoted Jonathan Sumption, the former British judge, in his final 2019 Reith lecture: ‘Representative democracy necessarily produces a political class separated by lifestyle and outlook from those who vote for them... Few politicians will ever be like the generality of the electors even if they began that way... Getting elected calls for exceptional levels of ambition and commitment, government calls for high levels of information, experience and skill... The uncomfortable truth is that all political systems are aristocracies... Democracies are only different in that the aristocrats are installed and removable by popular vote.’  

Why, Goodhart asks, is the takeover of politics by an educated elite, the old Platonic dream, therefore a problem?  Does it not make sense to have the most intelligent people, or at least the best trained, running our political institutions?  Up to a point, he responds.  But there are two significant, related, problems with the takeover of politics by the cognitive class.  First and most serious is that such people tend to pursue their own interests and intuitions even while believing sincerely that they represent the wider common good.  Second, it turns out that a university degree is not necessarily the best training for a life in politics.

He makes the powerful point that it is easy to list half a dozen policy areas that have been at a sharp angle to the expressed preferences of many of the less well-educated: openness to global trade and the de-industrialisation it has led to; promotion of a knowledge economy and the fifty per cent target for university attendance, and the relative neglect of vocational and technical training; openness to large scale immigration and the embrace of multiculturalism, with its attendant ambivalence about majority identities; the social and geographical mobility that strips many communities of their most able people; the policy that downplays the private realm of the family and gives priority to both parents working; and finally the embrace by the cognitive class of a more technocratic, global politics that has stressed international integration, climate change, human rights, and sex (and sexuality) equality, and downplayed national social contracts and national democratic sovereignty.

The author says that many of the big arguments of our time are over values and meaning, but what we tend to hear about in the media is the ‘how’ not the ‘why’.  Brexit, to most Leave voters, was about values: sovereignty, belonging, identity, control and so on.  A working-class childminder is highlighted, for example, who said of the Remain campaign in 2016: ‘Why do they think all we care about is money?’  Many Remainers continue to assume that Leave voters simply lacked the facts to make the right decision, making the misplaced assumption that the result was the outcome of almost bovine ignorance, when it was of course much more complicated than that.  

It is part of the widespread incredulity that many still cannot believe that people could have voted against what seemed to be their own economic interests.  This is despite the fact that well-paid members of the centre-left branch of the cognitive class have supported parties of higher taxation for decades, a decision in which values are more important than their economic interests.  In politics, the Heart usually trumps the Head, which perhaps explains Donald Trump’s continuing appeal to so many in America.

As Goodhart observes, it is hard for many of the middle classes to fully appreciate the transformations that have been wrought to those at the bottom of the economic ladder in recent decades.  However, he makes the point that there are still plenty of opportunities for those who can turn their hand to creating the goods we need.  What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair.  While manufacturing jobs have certainly left our shores to a disturbing degree, the manual trades have not.  If you need a deck built, or your car fixed, the Chinese are of no help because they are in China, while there are chronic labour shortages in both construction and auto repair here at home.

We need to be wary of romanticisation, he cautions, but some skilled jobs – especially skilled trades working with materials such as leather, wood, stone or brick – can also give people a deep sense of meaning and connectedness that goes beyond utility or economic value.  Getting intimately involved in any physical process that requires skill, concentration and a deep understanding of a particular material is a way of blurring subject and object, enlarging your sense of self by becoming what you are working with.  Winston Churchill meditated by bricklaying and many of the ancient crafts of Japanese culture are still performed as a meditation.

Another challenge to the idea of a dramatic polarisation between what Goodhart calls good jobs, mainly the Head type, and lousy ones, mainly the Hand and Heart type, comes from the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2015, which had a special focus on work and jobs.  It asked people whether they thought they had a good job based on seven factors – security, income, opportunity for advancement, interest, autonomy, opportunity to help others, use to society – and the proportion who thought they did rose to 71 per cent, up from just 59 per cent in 1989.

There is one benign reason, Goodhart analyses, for the crisis of recruitment in care jobs, especially nursing: women have more career options today than they did fifty years ago and, on average, are better educated.  Nurse recruitment has undoubtedly suffered from the breaking of glass ceilings.  In the decades after the Second World War, some of the most capable women in rich countries were working as ward sisters or primary school heads.  Their daughters are partners in city law firms, management consultants or, indeed, medical consultants.  Society as a whole has benefited from this greater freedom for women, but many parts of the care economy, including teaching, have suffered.

It is hard to disagree when the author concludes this section by saying that often what we really value becomes clear only when it is too late, and we are regretting on our death bed.  People seldom wish they had done more paid work or got more promotions in their careers.  Social psychologists have actually measured this while researching what people say when close to death, finding that the regrets of the dying are overwhelmingly linked to our sense of belonging, to love and to family, and hardly at all to work or achievement in the public realm.  People who work in hospices caring for the dying report over and over again that men, in particular, at the end of their lives almost invariably ask for forgiveness from those close to them for not being a more loving or caring husband or father, which surely tells us so much about what we really ought to value.

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