Christina Patterson: Society isn't broken, it's just become self-centred

Was it inevitable, after 18 years of me, me, me, that we’d all bow to the new god, Choice?

This week, a politician gave an inspiring, almost poetic speech about the audacity of hope.

Sure, Obama tried to persuade the myriad nutters, bullies and spleen-vomiting boors on the Republican side of the US Senate that while it might be tempting, in the world's richest society, to let poor people wither on the vine (and ideally die), it might be possible to give them the odd painkiller on the way, but I'm not talking about Obama. I'm talking about a middle-aged white bloke called Jon Cruddas, whose biggest claim to fame (in the tiny world of those who follow the snakes and ladders of party politics) is that he was pipped to the deputy leadership by Harriet Harman.

Drawing on writers and philosophers ranging from Hume to Hobbs, and Rousseau to Ayn Rand, Cruddas told members of the pressure group Compass that the Labour Party had lost its "optimism". Not, one might think, an observation that required the mind of Einstein, given that the chances of Labour winning the next election are about on a par with those of Ahmadinejad winning a Nobel peace prize, and optimism, in these circumstances, would be not just unwarranted but suggesting the need for considerably stronger medication than the antidepressants the Prime Minister is rumoured to be taking.

But Cruddas made a much wider point. Following the disappearance, he said, of a working-class "way of life which emphasised neighbourhood, mutual obligation and common betterment", and of a model of social democracy in which, to quote one of the architects of New Labour, Philip Gould (and therefore one of the people who, arguably, wrecked it), people wanted to do what was "right" and not what was "aspirational", people are experiencing "real pain and loss", because "we have lost our language, our empathy, and our generosity".

It's hard to disagree. Was it inevitable, after 18 years of me, me, me and greed is good and no such thing as society, and iron ladies not for turning, that to seize political power in this country you had to talk about aspiration, and stakeholders, and hard-working families, and public-private partnerships, and zen-like calm about the "filthy rich"? Was it inevitable that you had to hide your good works (your Surestarts and your minimum wages) and talk only of everyone getting richer all the time? And was it inevitable that we would all bow to the new god, Choice?

I don't know if it was inevitable, and we'll never know now, but we did discover that "choice" meant abandoning the idea of a good education for all in favour of middle-class parents fighting, lying and lobbying to get their children into half-decent state schools, and working-class (or, more accurately, non-working-class) parents apparently choosing to send their children to schools from which they emerged illiterate. (A model, incidentally, so unsuccessful that David Cameron is now considering replacing it with an even more complicated, "opt-out", public-private partnership version that has been tried in Sweden and widely regarded as a disaster.)

There's no doubt that the Labour Party has lost its vision of a society that functions as some kind of organic whole, in which some people in it actually care for other people in it, and there's no doubt that the Conservative Party never had one. And if it (briefly) pretended to, to shed its "nasty party" image, saved by the prospect of mass cuts and fabulously irrelevant distractions like the salami-slicing of MPs' pay and MPs' salami sandwiches, it sure as hell doesn't now. But the much, much bigger issue is that it isn't just our political parties that have lost this vision. It's our culture as a whole.

Fay Weldon, who has seen a fair few cultural shifts in her near eight decades, told me the other day about a visit to her old school. "I told them," she said, "that we were brought up to believe that if you were privileged, you should go out and use your brains to save the world. They were completely astonished. No one had ever suggested anything like this to them, only self-advancement. They had no idea that there was such a thing as what life was about, other than having a good time, and growing rich."

This comment, from a participant in Big Brother, or Ladette to Lady, or America's Next Top Model, would be depressing enough, but from one of the country's leading girls' schools? You might have thought that a bit of Cicero or Hamlet (or whatever they teach in private schools instead of Harry Potter and Eminem) might have made them a little more thoughtful, but clearly not. Children learn what their parents, teachers, media and politicians teach them. And this is what we're teaching them.

More than ever (as recent studies on social mobility have depressingly shown) we live in our enclaves. Middle-class, farmers'-market-frequenting ones where an MP's salary seems really rather low; underclass, pub-frequenting ones where it seems stratospheric, but then the concept of a salary is surreal; Muslim ones (Mohammed is now the third most popular name for male babies) where people rarely even talk to a non-Muslim. We live in our enclaves, or in our nuclear (or single-parent) families, but we behave as if we're alone, as if it's us (and the tiny circle of those we love) against the world.

Never mind the economy, this is the biggest challenge that faces us. Politics won't solve it, but politics could make a difference. It's unlikely, however, that the people to do this are the ones who call something "broken" when actually it's just rather selfish.