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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 24/06/2012

Last week the Labour Leader Ed Miliband said in response to the revelation about Jimmy Carr's tax avoidance:  ' I'm not in favour of tax avoidance obviously, but I don't think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality.'

I find this an extraordinary statement for any politician to make, never mind the leader of the Labour Party. Indeed it is a statement which shows how far the Labour Party has travelled in recent decades.  

For a short history of the importance of morality to the old Labour Party let's turn to Ed's supposedly more right wing brother, David. When giving the 2010 Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture he told the audience:

Keir Hardie said that the definition of modernisation in which unregulated markets set the price and the conditions of labour, of land, of food and of housing was wrong.  He spent his entire adult life arguing and organising for the truth that human beings and nature are not commodities and that democratic politics was the way that we act together to protect our humanity.  This did not make him a Luddite.  It gave him an ethical core upon which to judge proposals for change.  This is relevant to our times.
… Labour values are not simply abstract universal values like freedom or equality.  Distinctive labour values are built on relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life.  Practices like solidarity, where we actively share our fate with other people.  Reciprocity, which combines equality and freedom.  Mutuality, where we share the benefits and burdens of association. 
… The Labour Movement itself was a great moral teacher.  That was the moral importance of organisation for Hardie, it was the way that working people built a shared culture built upon Labour values, which were not exclusively individual, but were concerned with the ethics of a common life, of a democratic politics. 

So why did Ed Miliband disconnect morality from politics in his statement about tax avoidance? There are two obvious reasons. First he knows that the standards of politicians – from all parties – are so low that they will inevitably be caught out if they start moralising about people's finances. In short, politicians are very likely to exhibit the greediness and personal gratification which has come to dominate our age – at least for some sections of society.  I doubt this was an issue for politicians like Keir Hardie.  Secondly, the practice of tax avoidance is so widespread, for wealthy individuals and companies, that Ed Miliband was not prepared to risk alienating current or potential donors to the Labour Party.

Of course I agree with Ed Miliband's statement that what 'politicians need to do is - if the wrong thing is happening - change the law to prevent that tax avoidance happening.'

But as a leading politician he needs to set the tone for creating a better, fairer society. Even if he didn't want to talk about morality he could have shifted his vocabulary and said that as citizens we have a duty to contribute fairly. The fact that he wasn't even prepared to do this defies belief. Even more worrying is that it shows the gigantic moral vacuum at the heart of political life. 

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