Deborah Orr: Freedom and responsibility aren't always opposites

In recent years the distance between Left and Right has not been so great

Share
Related Topics

Let's pretend, for the sake of precious, beloved, argument, that there is such a homogenous, seamless entity as "the Left", every member of which has been struggling for decades to "destroy the family". Let's pretend, for the same reasons, that there is a similarly coherent entity called "the Right", which has been fighting for years to protect the family.

Let's accept that the family has indeed been undermined in this period, and pretend also that this dismal achievement is now unreservedly regretted by "the Left". Let's pretend that the Left now wants to make a truce with the Right, and find common ground on which a new appreciation of the family can be built.

But let's stop pretending at this point. The truth is that the distance between the Left and the Right during recent years has not been so very great. Many of society's difficulties have come about because views seen as "of the Left" and views seen as "of the Right" have in many respects had symbiotic relationships.

The Left, broadly, for the purposes of the debate over the family, is characterised as the group that promotes personal freedom, and persuades people that the pursuit of their own happiness is the most important thing. The Right, in supposed contrast, wants personal responsibility, which is just a way of saying that individuals should look after themselves.

In the eyes of many on the Right, it is the triumph of freedom over responsibility that has messed so many of us up. Yet while "freedom" and "responsibility" may seem like a couple of concepts in ineluctable contrast to each other, it is important to remember that the other word both sides prize is "personal". This shared idea persuades people, at an individual level, that they should have the right to make their own personal choices, untrammeled by the exhortations of the state. It has resulted in an odd centre-ground alliance, whereby even those services offered by the state are expected to deliver unlimited – and expensive – personal choice.

A number of commentators who would identify themselves as of the right are arguing at present that leftist ideas of personal freedom have come to dominate society, to its detriment. The contents of the recently published Children's Society report on childhood are brandished in support of this idea. The report's assertion that the nuclear family is best for children is presented as a bold revelation of truth to power, as if it is the first step on the road to a desirable and easily attainable situation in which unwed parents are sent to the gulag.

Yet even the people who are most doctrinaire in their belief that it is the collapse in support for marriage that has ruined us all can come up with no more of a clarion cry than "tax-and-benefit-breaks for registered heterosexual relationships" as a practical way of imposing "personal responsibility" on parents.

The reality is that the mainstream Right and Left differ only on whether the great sin is to lecture people on how to spend their money or how to conduct their private lives. Which begs the question: "How can economic liberalism be right, and social liberalism wrong?" The two go hand in hand, surely, just like love and marriage did, long ago, in days gone by.

The Left has not triumphed in Britain, any more than the Right has. Both sets of ideologies have generally championed the freedoms and choices of individuals, even though the Right's emphasis has been economic and the Left's emphasis social. Neither has much to say about how the promotion of individual freedom by necessity confers on people the freedom to make the wrong choices.

The Right's big idea is to concentrate only on limiting the freedom of choice of those who rely on state benefits. Once people are spending their own money, any idea that smacks of consumer or worker or community or environmental protection is to be rejected.

When the Left talks of tough food labelling, or restrictions on advertising in multi-generational spaces, or family-friendly working policies, or even containing the flood of sexualised images that constantly surround us, this is seen as an attack on business and entrepreneurship, and another intrusion by the ghastly nanny state. But really, it's just a weary and difficult acknowledgement that choice is freedom, and that freedom and responsibility are not always life-long faithful bed-fellows, whatever your political stripe. We got to where we are now together, and together we should shoulder the responsibility for our present difficulties.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried