It is difficult to imagine a more pessimistic national mood.
Not only is the news on the economy going from bad to worse but the knife crime epidemic has refuelled the debate over our ‘broken society’. With Gordon Brown’s popularity flat lining the Opposition need only to describe the problems to gain traction, even if its solutions are less than fully convincing.
Take one example of the tensions still to be resolved in Conservative messaging; it appears in Tim Montgomerie’s piece in today’s Guardian. As the leading Conservative blogger Tim is full of praise for David Cameron’s assertion yesterday that those in poverty and social exclusion must take some responsibility for their plight.
In the same piece Montgomerie castigates Labour for the fact that 600,000 more people are living in severe poverty than when Tony Blair came to power. However, these people are largely made up of those of working age without children.
Labour has put its energy into helping families with children and pensioners on the assumption that others are more able to help themselves. This policy looks broadly in line with Cameron’s tough message yesterday. So, it looks like the Conservatives want to attack Labour from two opposite directions: for not helping the poor and for failing to be sufficiently judgemental.
These issues are at the front of my mind in part because I am speaking tonight at the launch of a new collection of academic essays entitled Social Justice and Public Policy. The book reminds me of the kind of earnest discussion about the definition of social justice that I used to take part in when I ran IPPR.
I still find the debates fascinating but in my talk tonight I think I will steer away from a detailed assessment of the relative merits of the Rawls’, Sen’s or Dworkin’s definition of social justice.
Instead I will make two points. The first is to remind people of the contrast between the progress in achieving rights based on legal equality and the lack of progress towards greater levels of collective social equality.
At the same time as society has become more economically unequal, we have made major advances in the rights of, for example, gay people, disabled people and working parents. It is interesting to explore why this has happened and whether there is any trade off between legal equalities and social justice.
My second point will be recognisable to regular blog readers. It is simply that there is a growing disconnect between our worries about social injustice and our own willingness to do anything about it.
In recent weeks I have spoken to a number of city bankers. You might have thought they would feel guilt and remorse at the fact that the greed and stupidity of their sector is now damaging so many people. But instead the tone is more one of indignation and self pity.
Rather than recognising that those who did best out of the boom might be those who should sacrifice most in a downturn, they blame the Government for their woes and demand protection against the risks they were once so happy to take. I have written in the past about self styled progressives who send their children to private schools thus buying themselves privilege while lecturing the rest of us about fairness.
Society as a whole seems long ago to have abandoned the idea that to complain about something we should at least show some consistency between the complaint and our own actions.
The problem is not so much convincing people of the need for social justice, however it is defined, it is getting people to understand and accept the consequences for each of us of trying to be a more just society. In that sense Cameron is right to ask tough questions. But once again it is those at the bottom rather than those at the top who are in the firing line.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.