It would be easy, and completely justified, to accuse Gordon Brown of moral cowardice and dishonesty in relation to public spending. But recent developments suggest a much broader malaise in social and economic discussion.
Until last week the prime minister rounded on the Conservatives for supporting cuts while staunchely denying that Labour would impose any itself. This week he reversed course and suggested Labour would make cuts, although not in front line services. Yesterday leaked Treasury documents suggested that Brown saw the need to make cuts all along.
This lack of consistency should not come as a surprise. For years Brown trumpeted his rules of fiscal prudence only to ditch them when a financial crisis came along. No doubt he would argue that circumstances had changed but this only highlights the folly of proposing such rigid rules in the first place.
Unfortunately it is not just Brown who is guilty of a lack of principle or gutlessness. He is an arch exponent of the prevailing fashion for mindless pragmatism.
Rather than adhere to any principles the overwhelming instinct at present is for policymakers to simply react to events. The idea of aspiring to a particular vision of society, and then attempting to achieve that goal, is alien to them. A stultifying short-termism reigns.
Although such pragmatism may appear to work for a short while its long-term consequences are damaging. It undermines the ability of people to shape society for the better. Instead they simply drift – reacting to events as they occur.
A more principled approach is needed to give society direction.