The idea of "good character" sounds old-fashioned and patronising, but it may be the key to some of our most entrenched social problems. Politicians across the spectrum are starting to realise thisby Richard Reeves / August 31, 2008 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts , Prospect’s blog The first headmaster of Stowe school, JF Roxburgh, declared his goal to be turning out young men who would be “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck.” A mixture of courtesy and courage used to be essential to the idea of a British citizen’s character. Brits were the sort of people who knew both how to survive a Blitz and queue politely. Similarly, Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scout movement, aimed to induce in his young charges “some of the spirit of self-negation, self-discipline, sense of humour, responsibility, helpfulness to others, loyalty and patriotism which go to make ‘character.'” He described his movement as nothing less than a “character factory.”
But in the postwar shift towards a less constrained and judgemental society—”character-talk” in Stefan Collini’s phrase—dropped out of public discourse, except when considering someone’s suitability for high office. The idea of good character came to sound old-fashioned and patronising.
“The reason we find the concept of character difficult is because of class conflict in British society,” says Matthew Taylor, former head of strategy for Tony Blair, in an interview for my recent Radio 4 Analysis programme “Character Factories.” “There was a sense that good character was handed down from a patrician class to the great unwashed.”
But thinkers and politicians across the political spectrum are now trying to revive “character-talk.” Taylor is pushing the idea of “pro-social behaviour”—recognising, he says, that changes in personal behaviour are essential to successful policy in everything from climate change to obesity. David Cameron called in July for politicians to tackle issues of “public morality.” Against the backdrop of the impoverished east end of Glasgow, he insisted that politicians had to drop “moral neutrality.” He criticised the political classes for “a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong.” Some people on the left are also starting to argue that character might matter as much as resources in improving life chances.
Bestselling books like Lynne Truss’s Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life speak to a generalised anxiety about the breakdown of positive social norms of behaviour. But it is important to keep this in perspective. There is some evidence of a weakening of certain norms—more littering, public profanity, drunkenness and selfishness on the roads and public transport. But most of the…