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Sitting on the TGV to Toulon from Paris last Friday I found a rare opportunity to read properly the newspapers from cover to cover. The FT was predictably rewarding on the faltering global economy and the background to the tumbling markets that I had barely had time to follow in the news for weeks. However, the FT also provided two other delights. The first was a letterfrom Mark Wolfgram, an associate professor of philosophy at Oklahoma University. His letter provided a new and rewarding analysis of the recent English riots, which led some way to an explanati

Footlocker, Brixton, 9 Aug 2011 http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurachamberlain/ CC

on. He pointed out that most of the analysis has focused on the materialistic motives which lay behind the acquisitive violence.  However, taking from the ancient Greeks Wolfgram suggested that an exclusively materialistic explanation would neglect the necessary spiritual drive within human beings for self-esteem and respect. His broader philosophical point was that since the Enlightenment western philosophy has tended to concentrate on humans’ material drives rather than their spiritual motives. In other words, there while there were clearly materialistic motives for many, and perhaps most, of the rioters there must also be a non-materialistic motivation which we must try to comprehend. More blogging on this shortly.

My second FT related delight was an article by Bill Harris a former US diplomat who was the senior US civilian in Afghanistan from 2009-10. Harris’s article was a tribute to his former boss Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kabul who was assassinated last month. The article’s thrust captured in his title “The Taliban fears governance, not the garrisons” argued that the “Coalition in Afghanistan is missing a big opportunity. Security is essential for governance, so alliance leaders have understandably wagered heavily on building up the Afghan military and police. But we now need to include serious Afghan civilian capability. … The output tells the story. As the police and army’s strength nears 350,000, the Afghan civil service wobbles along with a few thousand to serve a population of 30m. …. Hamidi’s municipal government was starting to attract new staff, but was also operating at a vacancy rate of more than half.

We and our Afghan allies can fix this, but we will have to act quickly by enabling the Kabul government to begin churning out basic civil servants the same way we mass produce soldiers and policemen.”

This is a compelling argument. Recent events suggest the peace on on our streets in the UK is no more a natural state of affairs than it is in Afghanistan. Consent is necessary for peaceful government and governance matters to the giving of consent. This means, for example, good services delivered in ways which are seen to be fair; honesty and transparency with public money; and governing institutions in which those with or close to power, at the top of the hierarchy, treat those at the bottom, without formal power, with respect.

Our recent crises in banks, MPs’ expenses and on our streets defy glib explanations, but as part of the mix, I suggest that we need to pay more attention to the level of respect that we pay people and public institutions. Otherwise we risk undermining the mutual respect on which our peaceful society has for so long prospered.

Image of Footlocker, Brixton, 9 Aug 2011 with thanks to laura chamberlain.

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