25 MARCH 1995, Page 18


The Conservative Party seems neither to understand nor to act upon the concept of duty


The Conservative Party does not have a statement of aims and values. But one draft, currently circulating at Westminster, has fallen into my hands.

`The Tory party is an undemocratic con- servative party. It believes that by acting alone as isolated individuals we can create for a few at the top the chance to realise their full potential and for the rest a divid- ed society in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the few and not the many, where those rights that are left are matched by no sense of duty, and where we live side by side in a spirit of fear, selfishness and anxiety.'

One benefit of Labour's new Clause Four is that it lays down clear dividing lines in British politics. It concerns the notion of duty. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Conserva- tives regarded duty as their own intellectual and political property. Now, in the 1990s, they seem neither to understand it nor to act upon it. In fact, duty is an essential Labour concept. It is at the heart of creat- ing a strong community or society. It is the only way of making sense of the rules by which people wish to lead their lives in a modern age. Without it, we are left either with a crude form of individualism, or an overbearing state.

Individuals prosper best within a strong and cohesive society. Especially in a mod- ern world, we arc interdependent. Unless we act together to provide common ser- vices, prepare our industry and people for industrial and technological challenge, and guarantee a proper system of law and gov- ernment, we will be worse off as individu- als. In particular, those without the best start in life through birth are unlikely to make up for it without access to the means of achievement.

But a strong society should not be con- fused with a strong state. That was the con- fusion of early Left thinking. It was com- pounded by a belief that the role of the state was simply to grant rights. The liber- tarian Left espoused a version of social individualism which had very little to do with any forms of left-of-centre philosophy recognisable to the founders of the Labour Party.

The reaction of the Right, after the advent of Mrs Thatcher, was to stress the notion of the individual as against the state. Personal responsibility was extolled. But then a curious thing happened. In a mirror- image of the Left's confusion, the Right started to define personal responsibility as responsibility not just for yourself but to yourself. The economic message of enter- prise — in the early 1980s — became a phi- losophy of 'get what you can'. Responsibili- ty was limited to obeying the law.

All over the western world, people are searching for a new political settlement which starts with the individual but sets him or her within the wider society. People don't want an overbearing state. But they do not want to live in a social vacuum either. It is in the search for this different, reconstructed relationship between individ- ual and society that ideas about 'communi- ty' are found. 'Community' implies a recog- nition of interdependence but not overweening government power. It accepts that we are better equipped to meet the forces of change and insecurity through working together. It provides a basis for the elements of our character that are co-oper- ative as well as competitive, as part of a more enlightened view of self-interest. People know they face greater insecurity than ever before: a new global economy; massive and rapid changes in technology; a labour market where half the workers are women; a family life that has been altered drastically; telecommunications and media that visit a common culture upon us and transform our expectations and behaviour.

People need rules which we all stand by, fixed points of agreement which impose order over chaos. That does not mean a return to the old hierarchy of deference. That is at best nostalgia, at worst reaction. Neither does it mean bureaucracy and reg- ulation.

Duty is the cornerstone of a decent soci- ety. It recognises more than self. It defines 'You've got a novel in you.' the context in which rights are given. It is personal; but it is also owed to society. Respect for others, responsibility to them, is an essential prerequisite of a strong and active community. It is the method through which we can build a society that does not subsume our individuality but allows it to develop healthily. It accords instinct with common sense. It draws on a broader and therefore more accurate notion of human nature than one formulated on insular self- interest.

The rights we receive should reflect the duties we owe. With the power should come the responsibility. This principle applies to us as individuals. We should take responsibility for our own actions, for our family. These are 'negative duties', not to infringe the rights of others. But positive duties exist also, towards the broader com- munity.

If society provides the chance to work and prosper, we have an obligation to take it and to contribute something back. Com- panies have a duty not just to their share- holders but to their employees, to the envi- ronment and to the communities in which they operate. Government has a duty to be open, to function democratically and not to urge upon the country policies and prac- tices it is not prepared to follow itself.

Then we have a duty collectively as a society to create the opportunities for all to share in our prosperity. Without a stake in society, there is precious little hope of peo- ple feeling responsibility towards it. The creation of an 'underclass' set apart from society's mainstream, into which a signifi- cant minority of children are born, is inimi- cal to a society founded on duty.

But the way in which society acts is through more than government; and where it is through government, it should be prop- erly reinvented and accountable, devolved and efficient, crossing the boundaries of private, public and voluntary sectors as suits the purpose to be achieved. At each stage, it should be based on the duties of mutual obligation.

The Tories have forgotten the language of duty. For Labour, it is not a new lan- guage, merely one rediscovered. And it is the language our nation needs.

The Rt Hon. Tony Blair MP is leader of the Labour Party. The above is an extract from the 1995 Spectator/Allied Dunbar lecture, delivered on 22 March.