IT'S a crowded slope, the moral high ground.
Some toil to ascend; some act as though they were born there. For politicians and others deciding whether they are great as well as good, it's a desirable spot. Last week, David Cameron made the hike.
The expedition was not voluntary, but the Prime Minister didn't hesitate. Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, had excoriated the Coalition for a system inflicting hunger on those it is supposed to help. For Cameron, a trip to Mount Virtue was required.
His government's reforms were not just "making the numbers add up", he wrote in a newspaper. Just as important was the "moral case". He wasn't driving people into hopelessness, but givi==ng "new hope". True, he was wedded to an economic plan, but slaughtered benefits were "at the heart too of our social and moral mission in politics today".
When someone who is about to become a cardinal calls you out, the wise politician responds. If the churchman looks on you with contempt, an attempt to be equally lofty is advised. But the Prime Minister's troubles did not end with pastoral messages. Hot on the train of the archbishop came 27 Anglican bishops and 16 representatives of other faiths.
Supporting the End Hunger Fast campaign, they reminded Cameron of his "moral duty" to the half-million people who have needed food banks in the space of a year. In answer to "hard choices", the clergy retorted (in a letter to the Daily Mirror): "Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must 'heat or eat' each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30% in just five years." In the world's seventh-largest economy, people go hungry.
Cameron's high tone towards the archbishop (and by implication the other clergy) was therefore inevitable. What else could the PM have said? That he doesn't care if 5500 people were in hospital with malnutrition in the UK last year? It's all one to him how the deficit is reduced? He prefers his government's attitude to the simpering from the churches?
In such an argument, Cameron needs his "moral mission". Nothing gets under the skins of Tories better than the charge that they remain the nasty party, ever alert to economic cost and oblivious to human value. Last week, the Prime Minister was being challenged to answer fundamental questions. What kind of society is this? What kind of society do we want it to be?
Across Britain, the question is being asked while inequalities widen, greed is excused, and the safety net is hacked apart. In Scotland, there is an another kind of urgency. For those determined or inclined to vote Yes in the referendum, there is a tantalising hope. At Westminster, as the triumvirate parties quibble over an ever-bleaker, ever-more reactionary consensus, the chances for social justice diminish. Here there is - could be, might be - the chance of an alternative.
Many who think this way would refuse to call themselves nationalists. They don't care about flags or boundaries. Questions of identity leave them cold. Their fascination with EU membership or the currency is slight. If they are attracted to independence it is because they believe justice can no longer be won at Westminster.
A lot of confirmed or potential Yes voters combine that view with several others, of course. Contrary to anything Better Together wants to believe, there is no single species of "nat". The idea of independence grants possibilities. People are capable of imagining a great many. One fact is plain: the Tory world-view - with or without a "moral mission" - earns few electoral rewards in this country. Scots don't care for it.
This does not make them nature's egalitarians. Plenty of Scots fall for the welfare-scrounger calumny; plenty have an ignorant disdain for immigrants. Many would sell their votes - if you trust an infamous survey - for £500. Yet still they reject Tories. Their interest in Ukip is statistically insignificant. Scots might not always be champions of justice, but they choose parties that claim to take social justice seriously.
Such voters know things grow worse for the many, better for the few. They see their spending power evaporate as their children's prospects vanish. They look, amazed, on a bedroom tax. They ask themselves what happened. In 2009, there was one Trussell Trust food bank in Scotland. By October of last year the number was 42, with 17 more planned. Why tolerate that?
Scottish Labour has a reply. It's not new. All the people of these islands, they say, must stand together to create a better society. Independence is a betrayal of a common purpose. There are a few problems, though, with this noble vision of solidarity.
One is that Labour has been selling the dream for decades and rarely made it a reality. The dream has dissipated, sometimes thanks to Labour governments, most often because a majority of English constituencies have been handed to Conservatives irrespective of Scotland's votes. Today, Scottish Labour leaders denigrate the "something-for-nothing society" and the London leadership succumbs to austerity mania.
How could you guarantee an independent Scotland would be socially just, or that justice would endure? Unlike some, Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens has been admirably honest about "Scandinavian-style" equality. You get what you pay for. In return, you get universal social goods and a system that is cheaper, for the majority, than private provision in the American manner.
To entrench that hope, you seize the opportunity of a written constitution for an independent country. If Scotland is serious about justice, meaning human rights, it must bind its future governments to standards rather than allow the hokum of one man's comedy of the "moral mission" under a state run, increasingly, by an oligarchy.
The idea that independence will be secured be voters who are not nationalists baffles and disturbs the UK's defenders. They would rather caricature everything as the whim of Alex Salmond, and ignore those who will vote Yes despite the First Minister, not because of him. The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) knows better.
The RIC leaflet about to go through letter-boxes in housing schemes describes the gulf between hopes and reality. Wages, housing costs, working hours, fuel poverty, infant mortality, pensions, and much else besides: if this is better together, if this is certain for as long as Westminster prevails, those who vote No will say No to the future. For once, working people have the chance to make the change.
Had Scottish Labour not cursed itself with a loathing of the SNP it would understand the "morality" with which it is allied. Clerics wash their hands of what Labour supports. People who believe in a just society despair of the company Labour chooses just to crush "nats". The party matters more than the people. On the high ground, the air gets thin.
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