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Spinning: What values did Damian McBride receive as an undergraduate at Peterhouse, Cambridge?

This autumn saw the publication of Damian McBride's book, Power Trip, in which Gordon Brown's spin doctor reveals all about his dark and dirty deeds. When I learned that McBride had been an undergraduate at Peterhouse in Cambridge, my mind went back to the London suicide bombings of July 7, 2005. The connection isn't obvious, so let me explain. 

What the 7/7 bombers did was appalling. What they did was wrong, very wrong. But they were not wholly wrong in why they did it. Their motives were mixed, but among them was moral disgust — disgust at the obsession with the consumption of material goods, which they felt characterised the culture enveloping them. In the videotape that he left behind, their leader, Mohammed Sidique Khan, was scathing about British materialism, and he asserted that "our driving agenda doesn't come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer". Maybe it was no coincidence that, before he turned politically radical, Khan was involved in helping young Asian drug addicts kick their habit; perhaps the road to supposedly cathartic violence went through his direct experience of the humanly degrading symptoms of a popular culture that much prefers being out of one's mind to being in it. 

Now, in case such a dismal reading of certain reaches of popular culture sounds like the predictable expression of the conservatism of middle age, let me refer you to a remarkable article published seven years ago in the Guardian ("What young British Muslims say can be shocking — some of it is also true", August 10, 2006). There the card-carrying liberal, Timothy Garton Ash, wrote as follows: 

Britain now has one of the most libertine societies in Europe. Particularly among younger Brits in urban areas, which is where most British Muslims live, we drink more alcohol faster, sleep around more, live less in long-lasting, two-parent families, and worship less, than almost anyone in the world. It's clear from what young British Muslims themselves say that part of their reaction is against this kind of secular, hedonistic, anomic lifestyle. The idea that these young British Muslims might actually be putting their fingers on some things that are wrong with our modern, progressive, liberal, secular society...hardly feature[s] in everyday progressive discourse. But it should. 

Garton Ash is one of several prominent children of the Sixties who have recently shown signs of having second thoughts about the course of the liberal revolution over the past 45 years. He hasn't given us an exact diagnosis of what is wrong with the kind of liberal society we've developed, possibly because its implications are too troubling to excavate. So let me venture where he has declined to tread. 

The social problems that Garton Ash identified back in 2006 are all symptoms of an exaggerated regard for the freedom of the individual. Certain kinds of such freedom are very important, of course. Freedom from arbitrary interference by the state is one example; and freedom of conscience to discern what moral norms require in particular circumstances is another. However, a major problem arises when the individual's freedom is asserted over and against any given moral order, any created or natural set of values. For then, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has observed, individuality or individual authenticity or individual self-expression become completely meaningless. Choice in a moral vacuum is a choice without significance. Instead of being a unique incarnation of what's really valuable, it's merely a random assertion of blind will. The freedom of the individual is important; but only if we know what it's worth being free for

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