Covid has shown us that we need compassion at the heart of politics

Matt Hawkins is Co-Director of Compassion in Politics, the think-tank working to put compassion, inclusion, and cooperation at the heart of politics. He is on Twitter: @compinpolitics

There are going to be so many lessons to learn from our experience fighting the Coronavirus. A great number will relate to the government’s preparedness to deal with the pandemic and the decisions that have been taken as the crisis has unfolded. But there must also be a place for us to consider some of the more existential questions we’ve had to consider since the virus first reached these shores: questions about the kind of society we want to live in and the role politicians should play in governing it.

In responding to these challenges we should take inspiration from the people and organisations who have been at the forefront of our efforts to suppress and eliminate Covid – carers and health-workers. At Compassion in Politics we argue that our modern political system is constructed on a falsehood: the belief that care, empathy, and compassion have little or nothing to add to the cut and thrust of politics. Proponents of this view argue that politics is a purely rational pursuit and that emotions like kindness or sympathy will only serve to cloud the judgement of its practitioners.

Surely, though, Covid has taught us that this simply isn’t true. Governments have had to grapple with literal matters of life and death: issues where kindness and care are fundamental. The public’s outpouring of support for NHS workers has proven once again that this valued institution offers not only an exceptional model of public service but the ideal one.

We need to generate a public dialogue about the urgency of bringing the values of compassion, care, and empathy into politics.

Of course detractors from this point will argue that the one-to-one care a doctor or nurse provides is very different from the service expected of a politician. But I think this distinction is overblown. It is entirely possible for individuals to expand their circle of concern beyond the immediate environment, and it should be incumbent on anyone entering public office that they work to do so. Such effects can be achieved with compassion coaching, empathy training, and courses in mindfulness. The latter of these has already been introduced to parliament by the Mindfulness Initiative, and Compassion in Politics is working to trial the former.

But we needn’t wait for such practices to be established and take effect. We need to generate a public dialogue about the urgency of bringing the values of compassion, care, and empathy into politics. We need to make it acceptable – desirable even – that politicians speak from the heart and act out of love. And we need to see that the motivations driving individuals to study and practice medicine can equally inspire those who go into politics. How else can deal with the crises of poverty, homelessness, and climate breakdown? And just as a health-worker will apply a cure or offer support regardless of the patient’s background or circumstances, so politicians should proceed with less judgement and more care, less proselytising and more understanding.

Covid has precipitated a revolution in our way of life …. I hope that …. it also leads to a transformation in political values.

We’ve seen the transformational benefits that can come from such an approach. In the immediate post-World War Two era politicians in Britain understood that they had to provide substantial state support to help the public recover from the ravages of war. That era gave us the NHS and the welfare state, and later the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion. At the international level it led to the creation of the United Nations and its peacebuilding and development missions. Covid has precipitated a revolution in our way of life similar to that created by World War Two. I hope that, like then, it also leads to a transformation in political values.


Featured photo by Jordhan Madec on Unsplash

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