When celebrities indulge in open virtue-signalling and Something Must Be Done-ery, it is irritating but ultimately harmless. But now political leaders and governments are doing the same thing, and it is deadly serious
Tony Parsons – who only last year bravely admitted to being “Tory Scum” – has a great new piece in GQ magazine, blasting the prevalence of virtue-signalling behaviour among the celebrity and political class.
After ridiculing certain actors and celebrities, whose Something Must Be Done-ery and hand-wringing at the existence of the Evil Tories is misguided but ultimately harmless, Parsons goes on to warn that it is much less funny when political leaders and entire governments are engaging in the same virtue signalling exercise.
His conclusion is worth quoting at length:
All this smug, self-satisfied, shockingly empty posturing would be merely laughable if it was confined to a few pompous luvvies who make clods of themselves every time they say a line that isn’t written by someone far smarter than them. But the desire to demonstrate moral purity now extends its cloying reach all the way to Downing Street, where even pink-faced Tory boys strain to prove their liberal credentials.
Many civilised nations such as Australia, Canada, France, Japan and Ireland have vastly reduced their foreign aid budgets after reaching the conclusion that shovelling billions to the developing world does nothing but encourage corruption, erode democracy and throw away taxpayers’ hard-earned money like a sailor on shore leave.
But in our own country the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid has been enshrined in law. The UK spent more than £12 billion on foreign aid last year, at a time when almost every other area of public spending was being slashed. Only the NHS and foreign aid were spared George Osborne’s cuts.
How can this be? How can a new private plane for a developing world despot be more important than the police, or the armed forces, or benefits for the disabled? How can it be rational, or even sane, for a country to care more about flood defences in Congo than it does about flood defences in Carlisle?
Because it doesn’t really matter if that £12bn a year in foreign aid itself is effective. It is not about feeding hungry mouths. Foreign aid is purely about demonstrating impeccable liberal goodness. Cameron’s Conservatives need to demonstrate that they are kind, decent and virtuous, need to show that they bought “Do They Know It’s Christmas” when they were at Eton and Westminster. Our foreign aid budget – millions of it shipped to nations where the British are despised – is meant to be conclusive evidence that the Tories care.
Virtue signalling begins and ends in the developing world. So Benedict Cumberbatch can’t give a thought to a small German town like Sumte (population 102) that finds its infrastructure collapsing under the burden of giving a home to 750 migrants. Sherlock can only prove his liberal goodness by fretting about Syrian refugees.
There is a debate to be had – and it is the debate of our age – about how we manage our moral obligation to our own people with our humanitarian impulse to help the world. But you will never hear that difficult subject broached among the virtue signallers who scream their pious certainties and wag their censorious fingers at the wicked Tories – which is bitterly ironic as David Cameron is the biggest virtue signaller of them all.
This blog dissents from the suggestion that the bulk of the foreign aid budget should not have been returned to taxpayers but merely reallocated to an unreformed NHS and welfare state, but the main thrust of Parsons’ argument – that we are essentially spending nearly one percent of our GDP not to do good but rather to look good – is devastatingly accurate.
And since those who disagree with the Conservative government are already determined not to see it as merely politically misguided but as a sociopathic millionaire’s club actively seeking to hurt the poor, there is little point in continuing to ringfence international aid spending as part of a PR exercise which has already failed.
Virtue signalling when practised by lame comedians and other assorted commentators angling for a cheap laugh is tiresome but essentially harmless. But when our elected government signals its virtue with taxpayer money and national policy, it can be the difference between life and death.
Which is why David Cameron and George Osborne should focus on sound policymaking and (just for a change) conservative principle, leaving the compassionate handwringing to the more-than-capable Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Postscript: None of this is to say that this blog does not sometimes agree with the causes fleetingly taken up by celebrities, even Benedict Cumberbatch.
Top Image: ITV
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