Politics and public policy do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within and interact with the social values and fashions of the day. We need to understand, and if necessary correct for, these trends if we are to control our direction of political travel. The alternative is to drift in the wake of the conventional wisdom of the day and we need to decide whether we shape the world around us or are content to be shaped by it.
Maybe we should remember that only dead fish go with the flow.
Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, we have transformed our world. While we have lurched at times into bloody conflict, we have also excelled in literature, art, science and medicine. We have expanded the rule of law and democratic systems in our world and we have alleviated more physical poverty in our own generation than in the whole of history. The triumph of our political and economic systems, with strong and decisive leadership, have enabled us to see off the threats of Nazi fascism and Soviet communism. Yet there is a crisis of confidence, an uncertainty and a lack of optimism in our society which I believe should trouble us.
Today, I want to first look at a number of factors which I believe threaten to derail the trend of our progress, sap our political strength and threaten the resilience of our country at a time of considerable external threats.
Some of these factors may seem trivial when considered alone. Certainly, none of them are lethal in themselves but cumulatively they are profoundly affecting the body politic. Diminishing social mobility, the cult of the celebrity society, the decline in serious learning, the increasing disregard for empiricism and social attitudes verging on valuephobia threaten to cast a shadow on the enlightened western liberalism which has taken us so far.
It takes only a passing glance at any newsstand today to see the influence of celebrity. Society seems obsessed with celebrity, fame and trivia while serious learning and difficult achievement take second place. Where in previous generations youngsters would aspire to be scientists or astronauts the answer to the question "what would you like to be?" is now simply: "famous".
In a time when it is possible to be famous simply for being famous (and moreover wealthy for simply being famous) it is an understandable temptation. Yet, the celebrity culture masks one of the most worrying trends in society in recent years. The decline in social mobility in the last decade in Britain should be a prime concern in a country which needs to harness the potential of all its citizens if it is to compete successfully in a cutthroat global economy. But while social mobility has diminished in the new Labour years we have a plausible alternative - we have the illusion of social mobility in the celebrity culture.
Yet while the pages of Hello! and OK may be opened up to reality TV stars and footballers' girlfriends, the doors of the universities and the law seem to be closed to far too many. And the dangers of aversion to difficult learning should not be underestimated. While India is producing huge numbers of mathematics, physics and chemistry graduates British numbers are falling, being replaced with soft subjects such as media studies. The unavoidable consequence is that we will have to import these skills from abroad or do without them altogether. Hardly a great accomplishment for our educational system.
My next concern is that the moral relativism which emerged post war- and which is probably unavoidable in a liberal society- has morphed into something much worse- what we may call intellectual relativism. It is a state of affairs where people seem to believe that the validity of their views is determined by the strength by which they hold them not by any reference to empiricism. Thus we get the use of phrases such as "well that is your truth- it's not mine" or the increased frequency of the one word which is doing untold damage to the concept of objectivity - "whatever". When confronted with evidence which undermines the fashion du jour or your own prejudices simply lift your hand and say " whatever" and you can avoid all the discomforts of the value of truth or objectivity or of being plain wrong. "Whatever" means never having to say you're stupid.
This trend is exacerbated by the culture of political correctness. In line with the lack of critical analysis generally, political correctness further restricts free expression and, by extension, thought. How often do we hear people say " of course you're not allowed to say that are you" or "I'm not supposed to think that, am I ?". This is neither a small nor a trivial matter.
Political correctness is not just linguistic repression. In the name of liberal thought it is the very antithesis of liberalism. In true Orwellian doublespeak fashion it is the imposition of a particular set of, usually left leaning, social and cultural mores. The good manners and respect for others' differences on which civilised behaviour depends should not be confused with the restrictive language and thought control which the PC culture promotes. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression are essential in the pursuit of reason. It is reason that will lead us to truth and the pursuit of truth has been the driving force behind progress since the Enlightenment. We cannot allow the age of reason to gradually shift into reverse.
There seems to be a particular confusion when it comes to the expression of social, moral or religious values in some quarters. Indeed there are those who almost seemed so afraid of causing offence to anyone that they prefer to express no values whatsoever. What we may term valuephobia is manifested in some of the debate around issues of tolerance, diversity and the secular Society.
To tolerate is to treat with indulgence, liberality and forbearance. But tolerance is not the same as surrender. Because we tolerate the views and ideas of others does not mean acquiescence to them or the glib acceptance of the creed of inevitable moral equivalence. An enlightened society tries to resolve conflicts of ideas with reason but it has to be a two-way process. We are all in some aspects of our lives majorities and other aspects minorities- be it in gender, race, religion or politics. While majorities have to tolerate the views of minorities, minorities also need to tolerate the rights of the majority to disagree with and even disapprove of them. Tolerance certainly does not require the majority to ditch or apologise for its value set simply because a minority dislikes them. The tyranny of the minority would not be any more tolerable than the tyranny of the majority. Tolerance itself must be equally applied.
Confusion also seems evident in the debate about the concept of the secular Society. A secular society does not have to be a valueless society. Because a state does not have an affinity to a set religion does not mean it should avoid value systems. For the most part our concept of right and wrong is in tune with our basic instincts and our understanding of the consequences of our actions. These rights and wrongs are codified by religions not invented by them. In any case there are other, different, non- religious values which are part of our heritage-the concept of looking after those who cannot look after themselves, of hard work, perseverance and saving for a rainy day. States cannot operate without values and the seemingly all pervasive fear of causing offence because someone may disagree needs to be balanced by considerations of the benefits that can accrue to individuals and society alike of clear guidance on what is desirable behaviour.
Similar problems exist in our discussions about the diversity within our society. Britain has historically had a reasonably good track record in the assimilation of minority populations. Yet we have been so obsessed in recent years with celebrating diversity that we have forgotten to celebrate our commonality. Diversity is a good thing but we are also a society with a strong historical identity and we must not lose sight of who we are and how we have come to be the people we are. If we fail to emphasise what we have in common and the cohesive forces which have made us the country we are then we will produce not diversity but fragmentation. It has been interesting to watch in the recent American presidential election groups within the electorate referring to themselves as Irish American, Italian-American or African American. While clearly retaining their cultural identity, the common word is always American.
How are some of these trends affecting our political discourse.
A lack of critical thinking and an over accommodation with the conventional wisdom and fashion can result in policies which are one-dimensional. An example is the debate about poverty. An increase in material wealth has not diminished many of the social problems associated with the most deprived parts of our society. It has been a personal source of irritation that so much of the debate about poverty, including among many of our churches, has been about material poverty. Whilst the work to eradicate material poverty is important and must continue, we must also realise that on its own this is not enough.
The real poverty which stops so many young people from getting on the ladder to better well-being is the poverty of ambition, the poverty of aspiration and the poverty of hope. I am lucky. I came from a privileged background. We were not wealthy but my parents had a richness of ambition for their children, for their education and well-being. You see, it's true, you don't have to be posh to be privileged. We need to break away from the uni-dimensional debate about poverty simply as a material issue. Until we address some of the personal spiritual poverty, the lack of ambition and the lack of hope which afflicts some of our most disadvantaged citizens then we have no chance of making real poverty history.
All of these are important factors to get right if we are not to cast a shadow on the enlightenment.
But there is another area where I believe the lack of critical thinking puts our society at a disadvantage and that is in terms of our security.
There seems to have been a view developing in recent years that defines peace simply as the absence of war. If only we can avoid armed conflict the argument seems to say then we will live in a more peaceful world. But peace is not simply the absence of war. Real peace has an unavoidable set of values which accompany it. Freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression and freedom from fear are essential for real peace. Unfortunately we sometimes have to fight and even to die for these freedoms. The need to maintain public support for the conflicts which are sometimes required to ensure these freedoms is a burden which democratic states have to carry but many of our enemies do not. The absence of a clear and rational argument for the necessity of military action in certain circumstances can hand the advantage to those who wish to undermine our democratic systems and, indeed, our whole way of life.
This is where our social attitudes, our political direction and our national security converge- in the crucial question about the state of our national resilience.
For it is our resilience- our political and social fortitude- which will determine whether or not we are able to deal with the threats and challenges which lie before us.
Our current enemies answer to no public caucus-no court of electoral legitimacy.
It is we, in the conflict adverse West-who carry what can be a fundamental weakness.
We must make it a strength if we are to prevail.
And the threats we face are many, diverse and imminent.
Beyond the credit crunch there is a big bad world out there: The twin threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism; a resurgent Russia; a violent Islamist fundamentalism; an emboldened Iran and the global threats of climate change and pandemic.
First, a resurgent Russia.
Russia is not a failed state but it is a state fattened by hydrocarbon wealth and so far unable to translate this into shared wealth and stability. It is probably not a direct threat to this country but threatens our interests abroad and our allies.
Russia's swift and strategic invasion of Georgia in mid-August 2008 highlighted the stark reality of energy geopolitics in Eurasia. Aside from the objectives of scuttling Georgia and Ukraine's NATO membership hopes and demarcating a clear sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, Moscow intended to send the message to the broader West that it takes the competition over control of energy resources more seriously than any other player in the game.
As the whole world watched what looked like a juggernaut roll into Georgia, Russian officers on the ground witnessed a poor fighting force using out-of-date equipment with huge deficiencies in night fighting capability, communications, and supply and maintenance. Consequently, Russia is working hard to improve these capability gaps in its ground forces.
Russia will spend over $200 billion between now and 2015 upgrading its forces.
We now have Russian strategic bombers probing British airspace again-something that occurred on a regular basis during the Cold War. There are reports of similar activity by the Russian Navy inside British territorial waters.
The cyber attacks in Estonia, Georgia and most recently in Kyrgyzstan, where the finger still points at Russia is another reason why we must maintain our vigilance and invest in the technology to deal with future threats.
While some debate the merits of Britain building two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, Russian plans for its navy include the construction of six nuclear powered aircraft carriers, eight ballistic missile submarines, and the largest nuclear icebreakers in the world for use in the Arctic.
The latter is of great importance to the Russian Navy as the scramble for Arctic resources heats up and the ice continues to melt. In 2007, Russia announced its intention to annex a 460,000 square mile portion of ice-covered Arctic. Scientists claim that that area, on which Russia has audaciously set its sights, may contain 10 billion tonnes of gas and oil deposits. With ice melting in the Arctic, and shipping passages and possible mineral exploitation becoming an increasing possibility, we may be witnessing a scramble for this resource-rich territory with all the tensions that this will bring.
Russia may be building from a low base given the degraded state of its conventional forces and it may not pose a direct threat to the security of this country but the Russian leadership has shown in Georgia how they could destabilise our allies and indirectly threaten our security through their strangle hold on energy supplies.
Secondly, there is the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and the subsequent nuclear proliferation and regional arms race that could follow.
There are those who say that we must accommodate Iran as a nuclear weapon state. Let me give you three reasons why this is simply not acceptable.
First, the nature of Iran's leadership. Those such as President Ahmadinejad who talk about wiping Israel off the map simply do not belong in the civilised family of nations.
Secondly, the Iranian regime has shown itself to be, par excellence, a net exporter of terror and destabilisation. Do we really want to see nuclear weapons added to this mix? Do we really want to see Hamas or Hezbollah able to make a dirty bomb - a subject I will come to in a moment.
Iran has already shown its intent to destabilise the region. According to intelligence sources, Tehran has already begun the process of building a new supply line to replenish depleted stocks of missiles and other materiel for Gaza terrorists. Hamas are currently trying to acquire new missiles from Iran, especially Fajr missiles which could hit Ben Gurion airport or Tel Aviv if launched from within Gaza. Do we wish to see fissile material added to this mix?
Thirdly, if Iran gets a nuclear weapon then Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are likely to be next in the queue. Surely we do not want a new nuclear arms race in the world's most unpredictable region. After all that we went through in the Cold War, is this a legacy we want to leave to the next generation?
Thirdly, and this ties into my point regarding Iran, is nuclear terrorism. Put simply, nuclear terrorism is a problem that is not going away. I am afraid that many decision-makers in the West wish to ignore the issue hoping that by doing so the threat will simply disappear or at least not happen on "their watch". This is both naive and dangerous.
Much has been written and discussed on what form a nuclear terrorist attack may take. Of course, as with most things, there is a higher probability of one kind of attack over another. Regardless of the method, any successful or attempted nuclear attack would have a huge impact on our way of life.
It is generally accepted that there are three distinct possibilities:
1. An attack on a nuclear installation, for example, a nuclear reactor;
2. A dirty bomb using radioactive material to contaminate a wide area;
3. The explosion of a nuclear device itself with mass fatalities and potentially catastrophic economic circumstances.
Of these three it is the second, the detonation of a dirty bomb, that I am most concerned with.
While it may be regarded by terrorists as the poor man's nuclear bomb it could be socially and economically devastating - while relatively simple to carry out. The creation of a nuclear bomb itself would require access to uranium or plutonium, a dirty bomb could be made out of a wide range of radioactive materials. These sorts of radioactive materials can be found in a range of hospital equipment and machines discarded on industrial sites.
The first ever attempted dirty bomb terror attack occurred in November 1995 by a group of Chechen terrorists. A Russian television station was informed that 10lbs of dynamite had been buried with caesium in a Moscow park.
While the bomb was not detonated and later found by police neither the terrorists nor the source of the caesium were ever identified. Nonetheless, the terrorists successfully sowed the intended seeds of fear in the minds of both the populace and the authorities.
The struggle against nuclear terrorism can only be won out right by taking preventive and pro-active measures. We would have lost the battle if terrorists were able to detonate a nuclear device in one of our cities or major shipping lanes. Regardless of our response after the attack the physical, psychological, and economical damage would have already been done.
And while we are dealing with all of these we will still have to deal with the ever-present threat of Islamist fundamentalists and their violent anti-west campaigns.
There are those in the Islamic world who dislike us for what we do - our involvement in Iraq or our close ties with Israel. Their resentment is a reaction to our deeds but our differences are largely containable. But there is another group who hate us - not for what we do - but for who we are. They hate our culture, our way of life, our history and our traditions. They are irreconcilable to our political system and our values. They will have to be confronted as they have already decided to confront us. We must not make the mistake that everyone who wishes us ill is reconcilable by dialogue and reason. Fanaticism is alien to our way of thought but we must not forget that it exists or what it can mean. The 1930s should have taught us that lesson.
In an age of global terrorism no one, no where is safe.
We need to show the political, economic, and military commitment to the battle with global terrorism that we brought to the long battle with communism in the cold war. It is where our resilience will matter.
Terrorists make an intention assessment not a capability assessment. It is not based on the fact that the state is stronger, which it clearly is, but on what it is willing to do. The asymmetric advantage for the terrorist depends on the fact that the state will adhere to legal and ethical international norms while they have no requirement or intention to do so. In the Cold War when faced with a nuclear threat we responded with a nuclear deterrent of our own. This was in the classical mould of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. When dealing with terrorism it is essential that we speak loudly and clearly and also be willing to use, not just carry, the big stick.
The threats I have outlined are both real and imminent. Immersing ourselves as a society in celebrity headlines and trivia and pretending the dangers don't exist would be irresponsible. Politicians need to be frank with themselves and with the public about the risks we face. Both politicians and the media need to get away from the bad habit of saying what people want to hear and tell people what they need to hear because they are going to have to confront the inevitable. As a society we have to find the resilience to deal with the challenges of our generation as previous generations dealt with theirs.
We can begin by understanding who we are and what brought us to where we are before we lose our hard won gains. To shape the world or be shaped by it? That, indeed, is our question.