The real life state

Alison McGovern MP

Picture the scene. A 50-year-old man arrives at a job centre. He lost his job in heavy industry some years ago and has spent his life since living on government benefits. The economy moved on past his skills, and there is no work listed in the job centre website that he can do. He speaks to the staff, who inquire about his job search efforts, but have little to suggest by way of help. They are unsure how he should find work. He’s a proud man, and too embarrassed to admit to his family that he spends most of his day watching television, slumped in a chair.

Or picture this situation. Parents with disabled children meet to discuss the state care for their young ones, most of who have no more self-awareness than a baby of less than a year old, though they are 7, 8, or 9. The parents are panicked because the municipal government (which is charged with covering payment for their children’s care) is on a cost-cutting drive. A government official tells the parents that the problem is, “with the advance of medical science, these children have lived too long”.

Or this one. A single mum with a young child goes to see her member of parliament. The flat she lives in is provided by her local authority. The walls of her child’s bedroom are mouldy, often wet to the touch. Her child has asthma and sleeps in the living room in winter when the damp is worst. They have applied to move, but there is a housing shortage. She tells her MP she feels like a bad parent for letting her little one live like this.

These are the quiet realities of life in Britain. Not immediate crises, or terrible disasters, but nonetheless these scenarios pose a challenge to us: what is wrong here? Clearly, something is. In addition to many other faults – the ineffective wasteful use of state funds, the ill-treatment of the vulnerable, and the medical ineffectiveness – my view is that the moral question at issue is dignity. That the ability to take pride in existence, and our desire for that pride and dignity for those we care about, steers our moral perception.

We could criticise these scenarios on other grounds – that the man’s underemployment is economically inefficient, that the government official’s response is rude or discourteous – but in addition we make a specifically moral judgement about scenarios such as these. We think there is a wrong being done.

These scenarios are all ones that I have learnt about from my constituents or experienced during my time in politics. Politics, in my view, is influenced by moral judgement. The commentary that follows is designed to shine a light on the moral value that I think is pervasive and important: our need for dignity.

This pamphlet seeks to understand the moral values we share and explain why the concept of dignity is the foundation of progressive politics. Dignity means enabling autonomous, capable people. Dignity represents people who have respectful, caring relationships to each other. It means not allowing market transactions to exploit undue advantage. Rather than seeing improving public services solely through the prism of increased spending levels, a state that prioritises dignity would rethink how politicians relate to public servants, and how public servants relate to the people.


  1. John Stephenson

    This is all about the direction that your moral compass points. Are you compassionate enough to want a more equal society or are you self interested… This question would elicit an answer of the former rather than the latter in a large majority of instances. Rephrase the question and say would you be prepared to pay higher taxes for better public services or do you think taxes are already too high then the majority would support the latter. To get support for the former in both questions needs a culture change in this country and to achieve this there needs to be a mindset change. Blair and his team got the populous to believe in a third way in 1997. We MUST find leaders who can do this again. Charismatic local champions for this thread of thought are required and they need to be led by Labour Party leader who grabs the momentum created locally and drives it through to government. Just a thought…

  2. James O. Gibson

    “Rather than seeing improving public services solely through the prism of increased spending levels…”

    Though surely declining spending levels must come into it? The image of suffering and indignity you create, especially on council estates, is largely an outcome of complete abandonment under the Thatcher years. There’s a lack of opportunity and I think an unwillingness to spend more on these people does factor into their misfortunes.

    Let’s stop relying on a greedy profit-driven private sector to build jobs and communities, and start kickstarting socially-owned projects financed by taxing the well-off.

  3. Paolo Sanviti

    Social organization, economic development, sovereign virtue, equity and equality in health, policies to promote social equality, employment, justice, contribution of job control and other risk factors vs chronic social stress, inequality, poverty.

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This is an extract from the Fabian Society publication The Real Life State: Putting dignity at the heart of our public servicesby Alison McGovern MP