Post MPs expenses, will shame come back in vogue?

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Patricia Nicol’s new book, Sucking Eggs, tells us ‘What Your Wartime Granny Could Teach You About Diet, Thrift, and Going Green’. It could also teach us something about changing modern morality – particularly the rise of shame.

Bee Wilson’s review in The Sunday Times (May 3rd) notes that Nicol  ”shows that austerity worked to the extent that it did (and, of course, rules were flouted) only through a powerful combination of social norms and extensive government intervention. It was shame and fear of the consequences that kept people on the straight and narrow. Shame has largely vanished from Britain now”.

But, post the MPs expenses scandal, could shame be making a comeback? Certainly there are many MPs now loath to show their faces in public. A week of wall-to-wall coverage detailing how our elected representatives spent their allowances on moats, chandeliers and manure has inflamed the tut-tutter in all of us.

Even those sometimes reluctant to wag a finger have been understandably unable to resist. A BBC correspondent talked on the Today programme about ‘Hogarthian excess’, while Simon Jenkins wrote about how, ‘In scenes reminiscent of Gillray and Cruickshank, MPs have been kicked downstairs amid a cascade of loo seats, tampons, light bulbs, chandeliers, mole-traps, dog biscuits and horse manure’.

So, as we usher in this new ‘age of austerity’ do we also usher in the wartime and post-war values that go with it? Shame being one of the most powerful?

Certainly the mood seems right, and MPs are not the first. Bankers, who in not so ancient history considered themselves the ‘Masters of the Universe’ are now caricatured as the villains in Christmas pantomimes.

And there are other factors encouraging people to furrow their brow at their neighbour. Implicit and explicit shame will almost certainly play a part in Britain ‘going green’.  The government will no doubt soon conclude that shaming people into recycling and cutting back is more effective than gentle encouragement.

But, as Wilson also points out in her review, shame can not only encourage austerity and environmentalism, it can encourage intolerance of difference, and foster suspicion, secretiveness and resentment.

Of course the news media plays a prominent part in the definition of our society’s moral sense (and moral outrage). We shall soon see if the shaming of our Members of Parliament leads to a broader embrace of a value which can be as corrosive as it is effective.

Poster courtesy of under fair use guidelines for educational purposes

Written by Martin Moore

May 13th, 2009 at 3:20 pm

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