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Miliband's values and the family business

Plato thought that the state ought to be run by “philosopher kings”, wise chaps who perceived the deeper truths of the universe, the forms that lie behind the world we see. Plato could be a bit of a loon, as the foregoing suggests, and for millennia people have been lining up to give the idea of philosopher kings a kicking. Ed Miliband’s speech at the UK's Labour Party conference reminded us why.

Plato thought that the state ought to be run by “philosopher kings”, wise chaps who perceived the deeper truths of the universe, the forms that lie behind the world we see. Plato could be a bit of a loon, as the foregoing suggests, and for millennia people have been lining up to give the idea of philosopher kings a kicking. Ed Miliband’s speech at the UK's Labour Party conference reminded us why.

When it comes to ethics, almost all politicians are consequentialists. That is, they believe that an action is good or bad depending on its outcomes. The best-known version of this school of thought is utilitarianism, which says that the right thing to do in any situation is the one that maximises pleasure. The reason that politicians like consequentialism is that politics is largely an instrumental business; it’s about getting things done, and keeping the country running. Results are measurable, at least in theory. Also, if you go on about results then you don’t have to talk too much about values, which are messy, slippery things that are hard to screw up into sound bites and tend to be controversial.

Which is why it was surprising to hear the Labour leader using the word “values” 43 times in his speech. He said that he wants to promote good businesses and change bad ones. This was the moment that Miliband left the calm waters of consequentialism and sailed into choppier ones. This was his Kantian moment. Immanuel Kant is the pin-up boy for deontology, which is the main competitor to utilitarianism. Kantians think that things are right and wrong per se. They just are. It’s written in the stars, or the runes, or in the fabric of the universe or something. It’s all a bit Platonic.

In Miliband’s speech we learned that predatory businesses (especially private equity), asset-strippers and Fred Goodwin are bad. Hard work, long-termism and getting “something for something” are good. Which all feels a bit vague. This good/bad division is going to be hard to maintain, and it was quickly pointed out that Miliband’s ideal of a good businessman – Sir John Rose, CEO of Rolls Royce until recently – just joined the Rothschild’s investment bank. Is he still a goody, or is he now a baddy? Answers on a postcard with Ed Miliband’s face on it.

Then there was the call for “more engineering, and less financial engineering”. And talk of the “real economy”, and “producers” which is the sort of rhetoric which suggests that anything that doesn’t involve bolts, panel-beating and soot is some sort of voodoo. Which is funny, because we are always being told that the UK leads the world in computer games and fashion. Are they “real” enough? Are they good or bad? It’s hard to make much of it.

There’s the germ of a good idea in what Miliband said, but he needs to put some flesh on the bones. He could do worse than talk about family businesses; they have “values”, they are designed for longevity, they value people and so on. They are probably just the sorts of business that he wants to promote, and it’s a shame he didn’t say it.

There’s a school of thought that says that all ethics is a load of nonsense, that it’s just the expression of personal preferences dressed up in high-sounding language; good means “hurray” and bad means “boo”. That theory is over the top, but loose, unsystematic, confused ethical talk is sometimes like that. The Milibandian morality that emerged yesterday was a good example. Philosopher kings have to do better.

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