Character is an essential ingredient of a good life and a good society

There is growing interest in the political and policy importance of a certain set of personal attributes – in particular emotional control, empathy, application to task, personal agency, an ability to defer gratification – that might be summarized as ‘character’.

The possession of these character traits, or character capabilities, is an important predictor of a range of individual and collective aspirations, from health and educational outcomes to political engagement and civility. While the terminology differs – in different cases, terms such as emotional resilience, social and emotional skills, or life skills, might be used – the central, and perhaps growing, importance of character is being recognized across intellectual disciplines and across the political spectrum. 

The question of character has been addressed from a range of different think-tank and academic perspectives in recent months. Politicians, too, are increasingly interested in the importance of character.

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party said in his Hugo Young memorial lecture: “today, the character of our society - and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.”

Liam Byrne, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, who has a long-standing interest in the importance of character, said in a speech to the Fabian Society: “Our young people want to develop, not only their understanding of the things around them – but an understanding of the things inside them – self-confidence, self-esteem, ambition, motivation, nerve. Things some of us but not all were lucky to get from our parents; things that a small few often get from the finest public schools…This is why I have come to believe that a new agenda for character education is so important.”

There are also a number of third sector organisations explicitly or implicitly addressing issues related to character, from schemes to help young black men in London to the work of organisations devoted to helping children of failing parents, and many organisations working with ex-offenders, and so on. In the case of some youth movements, such as the Scouts and Guides, character development is a long-standing aim. Recent debates about national civic service relate at least in part to developing character traits and what would once have been called ‘civic virtue’.

Joining Demos for this project are:

  Camila Batmanghelidjh


  Kids Company


  Geoff Mulgan


   The Young Foundation


 Lord Victor Adebowale

 Chief Executive

 Turning Point


  James Arthur

  Professor of Education and Civic Engagement

  School of Education, Birmingham University


 Stephen Scott

 Professor of Child Health and Behaviour

 National Academy for Parenting Practitioners 


  Julian Baggini

  Writer and philosopher -

  Editor, The Philosophers’ Magazine


  Ed Mayo

  Secretary General

  Cooperatives UK


 Emma-Jane Cross

  Chief Executive

  Beat Bullying

  Terry Ryall

  Chief Executive 

  v, The National Young Volunteers Service 

  Matt Grist,

  Director of Social Brain Project

  Royal Society for the Arts


  Jean Gross,

  Director of Every Child a Chance Trust and Government Communication Champion for Children



 Jenni Russell

 Journalist and commentator



  Dr Sebastian Kraemer

  Tavistock Clinic 


  Yvonne Roberts

  Writer, journalist and researcher



  Anthony Seldon

 Political historian and headmaster  

 Wellington College  

There is then a wide and rich variety of thinking and practice around character issues. The aim of the Inquiry is to draw together the existing knowledge and apply it to contemporary public issues.

The Character Inquiry will:

  • clarify and test what is meant by ‘character’ in public discourse
  • review existing evidence on the significance of character
  • test mainstream opinion on the role of character in public and social life
  • highlight areas of public policy to which a character perspective may add value
  • produce research on character development in specific settings
  • consider policy implications for government, organisations and businesses.

The Inquiry will also conduct or commission research on the development of character in a number of settings, including:

  • early years and parenting
  • school curriculum
  • role of voluntary organisations
  • workplace
  • peer effects, social networks and friendship
  • social norms and mores

The Character Inquiry is non party political, but will be able to draw on the advice of three parliamentarians, one from each of the three main parties, who have agreed to act as advisers to the Inquiry.

Demos will provide the secretariat and research support to the Inquiry. The Inquiry runs until June 2011.

For more information contact Inquiry Secretary Jen Lexmond.













David Cameron, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Frank Field at the launch of The Character



Building Character
Jen Lexmond, Richard Reeves
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Character - empathy, application and self-regulation - counts.  This report looks at the vital impact parents have on forming children's character in the pre-school years.  It makes a case for greater focus on parental support during the early years and places character as the most important 'skill' a child can have.

The Home Front
Jen Lexmond, Louise Bazalgette, Julia Margo
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This pamphlet explores the increasingly important role of parenting in policy and argues that economic and environmental circumstances can shape and influence parental approaches for better or worse.

The Character Inquiry
Jen Lexmond, Matt Grist
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This collection draws together emerging research from the social sciences about the formation and development of character to inform public policy.

Mar 28

A question of character

Matt Grist discusses the final report of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel.

May 10

Are we naturally cooperative?

Ed Mayo discusses character and cooporation in his extract from The Character Inquiry

May 10

Young people do not always equal 'bad character'

Camilla Batmanghelidjh discusses how character can shape young people's life chances.

Jan 15

Podcast: David Cameron

Listen to the podcast of David Cameron's speech to Demos.

Jan 11

Cameron's Character

Richard Reeves gives David Cameron a test of character in today's Telegraph.

May 13

The Character Inquiry on Woman's Hour

Yvonne Roberts, a member of The Character Inquiry, talks about the report's findings in regards to 'femininity' and the development of character in girls.

May 12

Questions of character

Professor Edward Harcourt comments on The Character Inquiry in Prospect.