By Joseph Farrell

THE French Revolution was inspired by the quest for Liberty, Equality and Kindness ... well not quite kindness, but this is the term now employed in declarations made in subdued, very British tones, suggesting that as we emerge from the ravages of the Covid-19 crisis the new normal should be radically different from the old, and that greater kindness in society might be not a bad idea. The sentiment has been voiced before, if more stridently, when the followers of Danton or Robespierre called for not just Liberty and Equality but also Fraternity.

The less polemical “kindness” indicates a very British distaste of all ideology. Fraternity may be too loaded with unpleasant recollections of school-day readings of A Tale of Two Cities, but the aspiration behind the two terms is identical and deeply rooted in the human psyche. The ambition is voiced every time citizens take stock, usually when humanity is emerging from some cataclysm and deciding that the status quo was not good.

Fraternity-kindness is the secular equivalent of St Paul’s agape, translated as charity or, in more recent Biblical translations, love. Community had the same meaning for John Ruskin when he dispatched the undergraduate Oscar Wilde out to dig roads, as did decency for Orwell, solidarity for Engels, comradeship for generations of trade unionists. It is founded on a recognition of the need for a mental and moral change if purely political ideals for a new order are to be attained.

In this sense, it expresses a kinship between human beings deeper than class or skin. It imposes obligations towards others, and means that the rule of mere power, whether of the market or mafia type, is no longer tolerable. This aspiration is offended by Strong Men who impose codes they do not feel binding on themselves, by captains of industry who take the profits of collective endeavours and scoff at those below them, by ladies who exploit their cleaning women. It has been sinned against as often by the thoughtless Left as by the complacent Right.

Perhaps the call for kindness is the first inchoate sign that a fundamental recasting of values is under way. What unites the bishops, professor and barristers who tentatively advance a demand for a post-coronavirus overhaul of the economic order is an uneasy disquiet at prevailing levels of inequality in society, which brings us back to the French revolutionaries. Politicians of all parties, of the left as much as of the right, are curiously silent, although there has never been a more propitious moment for radical visions. Perhaps yesterday’s over-arching visions are not for today’s technocrats.

The new mood leans towards greater co-operation and less competition, and finds expression in an observation of the mismatch between market and social values, as has been noted by some American financiers who have concluded that the gulf in income between directors and employees under unbridled capitalism must be questioned. Captains of industry who have scorned objections to their inflated salaries may well now need more than PR agents. In Britain, this feeling is most plainly evidenced in unease at the status and remuneration offered to care workers. People who clap in the streets on Thursdays are outraged at the facile transformation by government of yesterday’s “unskilled” workers to today’s heroic spirits.

G K Chesterton famously reproached the People of England for not having spoke – yet! Is the silence being broken?

Joseph Farrell is a writer and communicator