Damian McBride: A Cautionary Tale

Did Gordon Brown’s aide receive moral formation at Peterhouse, Cambridge? If not, why not?

Nigel Biggar

This autumn saw the publication of Damian McBride’s book, Power Trip, in which Gordon Brown’s spin doctor reveals all about his dark and dirty deeds. When I learned that McBride had been an undergraduate at Peterhouse in Cambridge, my mind went back to the London suicide bombings of July 7, 2005. The connection isn’t obvious, so let me explain. 

What the 7/7 bombers did was appalling. What they did was wrong, very wrong. But they were not wholly wrong in why they did it. Their motives were mixed, but among them was moral disgust — disgust at the obsession with the consumption of material goods, which they felt characterised the culture enveloping them. In the videotape that he left behind, their leader, Mohammed Sidique Khan, was scathing about British materialism, and he asserted that “our driving agenda doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer”. Maybe it was no coincidence that, before he turned politically radical, Khan was involved in helping young Asian drug addicts kick their habit; perhaps the road to supposedly cathartic violence went through his direct experience of the humanly degrading symptoms of a popular culture that much prefers being out of one’s mind to being in it. 

Now, in case such a dismal reading of certain reaches of popular culture sounds like the predictable expression of the conservatism of middle age, let me refer you to a remarkable article published seven years ago in the Guardian (“What young British Muslims say can be shocking — some of it is also true”, August 10, 2006). There the card-carrying liberal, Timothy Garton Ash, wrote as follows: 

Britain now has one of the most libertine societies in Europe. Particularly among younger Brits in urban areas, which is where most British Muslims live, we drink more alcohol faster, sleep around more, live less in long-lasting, two-parent families, and worship less, than almost anyone in the world. It’s clear from what young British Muslims themselves say that part of their reaction is against this kind of secular, hedonistic, anomic lifestyle. The idea that these young British Muslims might actually be putting their fingers on some things that are wrong with our modern, progressive, liberal, secular society…hardly feature[s] in everyday progressive discourse. But it should. 

Garton Ash is one of several prominent children of the Sixties who have recently shown signs of having second thoughts about the course of the liberal revolution over the past 45 years. He hasn’t given us an exact diagnosis of what is wrong with the kind of liberal society we’ve developed, possibly because its implications are too troubling to excavate. So let me venture where he has declined to tread. 

The social problems that Garton Ash identified back in 2006 are all symptoms of an exaggerated regard for the freedom of the individual. Certain kinds of such freedom are very important, of course. Freedom from arbitrary interference by the state is one example; and freedom of conscience to discern what moral norms require in particular circumstances is another. However, a major problem arises when the individual’s freedom is asserted over and against any given moral order, any created or natural set of values. For then, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has observed, individuality or individual authenticity or individual self-expression become completely meaningless. Choice in a moral vacuum is a choice without significance. Instead of being a unique incarnation of what’s really valuable, it’s merely a random assertion of blind will. The freedom of the individual is important; but only if we know what it’s worth being free for

In our culture today there are many different moral currents, and this radical moral individualism certainly isn’t the only one. But it is a major one and, when combined with multiculturalist ideology, it tends to make institutions morally tongue-tied. Because if the individual is properly free to choose according to personal whim, and if all cultures are morally equal, then who has the authority to decide which norms will govern an institution and its many individual and culturally various members?

A striking instance of moral inarticulacy on the part of a British educational institution appears in The Islamist, the autobiography of a former radical Islamist, Ed Husain. In 1993, Husain was spearheading a campaign to “Islamise” public space in Tower Hamlets College — by holding public prayers, plastering the walls with Islamist posters, and encouraging women to wear the hijab. The college authorities grew alarmed and considered how best to combat the growing influence of Muslim radicalism. According to their best liberal lights, they decided to try and divert students by holding raves and discos. The result was telling. As Husain recounts it:

In early 1993, a 33-minute video was handed in to me about the war in Bosnia, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Balkans. I watched it in horror and then decided that it must be shown to our students to raise money for Bosnian Muslims. On Wednesday afternoon we booked a lecture theatre under the title of “The Killing Fields of Bosnia”…That same Wednesday afternoon the youth workers at college organised their second disco…The Islamic society offered a video on the killing of Muslims by Christians. The youth workers offered dance, drugs, and delight. To our astonishment the lecture theatre was packed. The students had voted with their feet.

Radical Islamism had dignified the students with a high moral seriousness. It had addressed them as moral agents with a responsibility for justice. The college authorities, on the other hand, had nothing either humanly or morally serious to offer as an alternative. No doubt acting on what passes for a certain kind of liberal common sense, they had dramatically underestimated the humanity of their students. Consequently, their ability to counter the growing appeal of a political radicalism, which, while misleading was at least humanly dignifying, was hamstrung.

The moral that I draw from this story, from the story of the 7/7 bombers, and from the story of Garton Ash’s conversation with young British Muslims is that we cannot afford institutions that are morally tongue-tied. We can’t afford institutions that are silent about what’s valuable, and about what kinds of behaviour promote and detract from it. We can’t afford institutions that are eloquent about skills, but speechless about virtues. 

Now, of course, anyone who has had a part in running an institution knows full well that it simply can’t function without common moral norms that its members take seriously. Nevertheless, the individualist and multiculturalist currents in contemporary culture have made it much more difficult for institutions to own and articulate and promote the common moral norms upon which their healthy functioning depends. And without ownership, articulation and promotion, those norms will not hold — whether in British banks, or in Tower Hamlets College, or in Peterhouse.

Here (in case you were wondering) is where Damian McBride comes in. Did he come out of Peterhouse any more virtuous than when he went in? If he did, then he was starting from an implausibly low base. And what about all those Oxbridge or Russell Group graduates who flocked into the City of London in the 1990s? Do we have any reason to suppose that they behaved more responsibly than their colleagues who brought the global financial system to the edge of the abyss, indirectly causing millions to lose their livelihoods? I doubt that we do.   

British universities have in their hands for several years hundreds of thousands of the brightest and best — the rulers and leaders of tomorrow  from all around the world. Do their students leave any more virtuous, with any better sense of what’s really valuable, than when they first arrived? If not, why not? I don’t think we can afford the luxury of morally silent institutions — especially not elite educational ones.

But what values and virtues may institutions own and promote in a liberal, multi-cultural society? Well, contrary to what moral relativists tell us, some moral views are universal; they do transcend cultures. In August I made my first visit to Hong Kong to attend a conference on Chinese and Western views of what makes war just, and there I was surprised to discover that classical Confucian and neo-Confucian views of the “just war” are remarkably similar to those found in the Latin West — notwithstanding the fact that Chinese and Western civilisations developed almost entirely independently of each other until the 18th century. We shouldn’t exaggerate our moral differences.

Having said that, there’s no escaping the fact that we have to make ethical choices. If we go with Confucius, we will regard deference to authority as a virtue, but probably not rebellion against it. If we go with the ancient Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, we’ll regard care for the weak and the poor as a virtue, but not if we go with Nietzsche or Ayn Rand. If we go with Jesus, we’ll regard humility, compassion and forgiveness as virtues, but not, I think, if we go with Aristotle. We have to decide to stand somewhere and to justify our stance as best we can. Of course, we won’t all agree on exactly where to position ourselves, but we can’t afford not to talk about it and we can’t afford not to decide. Besides, to stand confidently in one place needn’t stop us humbly learning from another. Indeed, the greater the self-confidence, the greater the readiness to borrow.

Many of our most important institutions in Britain have a Christian foundation. Most Oxbridge colleges and many of our most prestigious schools have Christian chapels. So I’ll conclude with some thoughts about the role of the worldview of Christianity in helping encourage wider moral articulacy. For sure, it isn’t the only worldview that can do so, but it is among those that can. And they are a finite set.

Christianity has a very high esteem for human beings, affirming our special dignity as made in the image of God — a dignity intensified by God’s own donning of human flesh in the Incarnation. According to this high vision, human beings are not merely the random result of the blind operation of physical forces, nor their activity simply determined by genes or chemistry, nor their asserted significance just so much desperate whistling in the enveloping cosmic dark. No, in Christian eyes humans are the creatures of a benevolent divine intelligence, which has striven through natural evolution to bring about individuals who flourish in freely investing themselves in what’s really valuable.

That’s why, for Christians, human life has the basic form of a moral adventure. This is reflected in the epic, narrative structure of the Bible: starting with the creation of humankind, followed by our fall from grace, and then the long road back with Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, with Moses out of Egypt, with Jesus to Golgotha and Emmaus, and then on to the New Jerusalem.

For Christians life is basically a moral adventure, where much can be lost, because there’s so much to be gained. Life is a serious business, but only because it is heavy with moral significance. In a community formed by Christianity talking about what’s valuable, and about the rights and wrongs of investing in it, is the natural thing to do. So one important service that Christian tradition can perform for the institutions of a liberal society is to help give them the confidence to set their moral tongue free. 

A Christian heritage and background ambiance, however, are not enough. Sometimes the corpse of a Christian institution is animated by a laissez-faire liberal heart. Thirty years ago, I’m told, Peterhouse had a strong Anglo-Catholic ethos. Perhaps that lingered in the air long enough for Damian McBride to inhale it in the 1990s. If so, it seems to have had no effect — as least, not immediately. So what went wrong? Well, maybe McBride was One That Got Away. Maybe his mentors sought to persuade him to value and virtue, and he simply turned away. Maybe. I think it far more likely, however, that they never raised the topics or used the words. In the 25 years I have worked in British and Irish universities, never once has the moral formation of students been a topic of conversation with colleagues, and on the only occasion when I proposed to use the word “virtue” in a statement of educational purpose, it was rejected as too “spiritual”. 

I don’t doubt that university teachers sometimes do form their students in virtue. A good teacher will exemplify and encourage a student to be honest in reporting evidence, careful in drawing inferences from it, patient in coaxing good sense from difficult texts, fair and charitable in treating uncongenial viewpoints, courageous in facing threatening ideas, humble in admitting the limits of knowledge, resilient in pursuit of elusive truths. Honesty, carefulness, patience, fairness, charity, courage, humility, and resilience — all of these are intellectual virtues, but they are also broader, social ones that have important application in the home, in the workplace and in the public forum. Teachers sometimes do foster them, but in my experience they’re highly unlikely to admit it. And when moral silence prevails in institutions — notwithstanding Christian heritage, Latin graces and chapel services — not only can amoral teaching flourish, but adolescent students receive the general impression that proper adults don’t care about values and virtues, and they resolve to grow up accordingly. So when they leave the womb of their alma mater for the big wide world, they embark, not on a moral adventure, but on a power trip.

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