Look at British politics in recent years and one thing stands out: an ever-dwindling supply of compassion. Migrating people who are left to drown as ministers send in patrol boats. Disabled people going hungry as social security is targeted. More divisiveness, via online abuse and anti-immigration sentiment, provoked by Brexit. And while the pandemic has in some ways brought communities together, it has also seen chilling callousness, as clinically vulnerable people die in large numbers with little fuss. Even topics that you would expect to guarantee compassion, such as growing child poverty, often descend into point scoring – or people turn a blind eye, suggesting we might now be desensitised even to a toddler going cold in the winter.
This is hardly to say cruelty is a new phenomenon for Britain. But the feeling that things are getting worse is hard to shift. The public share the concern: a 2019 survey from Action for Happiness found 60% of people believed Britain had become less caring over the past 10 years. In a new book, How Compassion can Transform our Politics, Economy, and Society, a range of writers and public figures – including Alf Dubs, AC Grayling, Pragna Patel and me – attempt to figure out how we got to this point and outline ways we could build a more compassionate society. There has been a normalisation of suffering in modern Britain – or more accurately, certain people’s suffering. I have been writing about poverty and austerity for almost a decade, and at times it feels as if the worse it gets, the harder it is for some people to care.
These unfeeling views are not born in a vacuum. They are the result of a carefully engineered hostile environment fostered by sections of the media and political classes. It was not an accident when a newspaper described migrants as “cockroaches”, nor when the future prime minister described Muslim women as “letterboxes”. It is in their interests. Just this month, the former Tory minister Lord Freud effectively admitted that the party introduced the benefit cap in 2013 not to save money, as was claimed at the time, but because turning the public against benefit claimants wins votes.
Dehumanisation has been a key part of our political discourse in recent years: discussion of “scroungers” and “illegals” dismisses even the basic humanity of people in need. And yet there is also surely a problem in our own lowered expectations – that we now just assume that those who are working-class, disabled people or people of colour will live a life of hardship and discrimination. We might call it prejudice mixed with compassion fatigue.
There are moments that expose the reality of government policy that manage to produce public outrage. Think of Stephen Smith, whose emaciated body visibly showed the cruelty of the benefits system. Or how the recent death of a newborn baby in jail highlighted the need for prison reform. Sadly, the reality is that the outrage fizzles out without any real change.
So how do we build something better and reinject compassion into our politics and our wider culture? It’s first necessary to consider what we mean by compassion. Compassion often holds paternalistic undertones – charitable gifts for the “deserving poor” – or comes as an empty gesture. Recall the response to key workers during the first coronavirus lockdown: each week, politicians and the public alike stood on their doorstep to clap for the NHS. And yet, within a matter of months, these same institutions and staff were being abandoned. Compassion can’t be reduced to a “touchy-feely” wave of the hand – or indeed a clap. It must represent a commitment to wide-reaching structural changes, from a properly funded social safety net, to sanctuary for refugees, to gender equality.
How, then, do progressives sell this? First, compassionate policy makes good economic sense. Feed and clothe deprived children now and future health, social security and crime bills will go down. Build more social housing and the taxpayer will save billions of pounds in housing benefits paid to private landlords. It is often cheaper to do the right thing. But it’s also crucial we make the principled case for a more compassionate political culture: if a fellow human being is struggling, we should do all we can for them simply because they need it.
We respond to stories – both their substance, and who is telling them – so creating a more representative media is one way to ensure fairer perception of marginalised groups; currently, only 11% of journalists come from a working-class background, while fewer than 1% have a disability. Parliament is likewise woefully unrepresentative of the public at large. Rich white male MPs lining their pockets from the Caribbean are never going to legislate in the interests of the disadvantaged.
Part of it, I think, is maintaining hope in the goodness of our fellow human beings. During terrorist attacks, we are told to “look for the helpers”. When we see social injustice, we should do the same. For all the individuals and groups sowing division and hate, there are countless more fighting for kindness and collectivism. Each of us has the power to spread compassion, whether that’s by volunteering for a homeless charity, campaigning for a political party that shares our values, or by not amplifying contrarian accounts on social media.
It is easy to feel disheartened; these are dark times for many and it feels as if the light is fading. But the first step in finding a fairer way to organise our society and economy is having faith that it is possible. Compassion’s greatest enemy is fatalism, and its greatest friend is the belief that empathy will win out in the end. Britain can be better than this.