If anyone was suitable to be the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests, it was Lord Geidt. Self-effacing, professional, unself-righteous but thoroughly proper, he could be relied on to do his job without an eye to attracting headlines, gaining Remainer revenge and similar modern temptations to which some officials succumb. Yet last week he resigned. It seems a good moment to ask whether the job is doable. Many will say that it isn’t, and blame Boris Johnson. It is undoubtedly true that any system based on rules comes under strain when confronted with Boris’s work methods. Last week, a horse called Etonian ran at Ascot. A newspaper reported that he was ‘evidently hard to train after his smart juvenile days’. That sums up the Boris problem. But I think the matter goes wider and deeper. The whole problem of the ethical invigilation of politics gets worse. This is not primarily to do with a decline in standards among political leaders, which have always varied wildly, but with a misconception about who should decide such things.
I first pointed out the dangers when John Major got Lord Nolan to work in 1994 after ‘cash for questions’. Seldom have I taken up such an unpopular cause. The view of most of the public, then and now, is that many politicians are bent, and some external authority ought to control them. My counter-argument is not to claim that politicians are highly ethical beings, but to point out the implications of submitting them to such controls. What you are saying, by enacting what began as the Nolan process, is that an unelected class of platonic (and, increasingly, woke) guardians should stand above those we have elected to run the country. This is an extremely bad idea even if, which I question, officials tend to be more ethical beings than MPs. Politics is politics and officialdom is officialdom. If officials start to run politicians, you gradually erode parliamentary democracy.
Lord Nolan, whom I knew slightly, was an upright and benevolent man, and his Seven Principles of Public Life are good, but few of the changes coming in their wake have in fact improved public life. On the contrary, they have narrowed it, making MPs more dependent on the state for money and therefore less well connected with the wider world. They have unintentionally encouraged an unethical attitude among MPs who have come to see these matters as unwelcome rules imposed upon them which they then seek to circumvent, rather than principles which should govern their consciences. The MPs become like naughty schoolboys, the officials like rather ineffectual prefects. When I worked in the Treasury looking at Thatcher records, there was an area of the building known as the ‘ethics corridor’. This illustrated the absurdity: ethics are not matters for designated experts, but for every human being. They are not supposed to inhabit a corridor, but to occupy the entire building. For most of that time, Sue Gray was in charge of ‘ethics and propriety’. She is an able official, but it is simply not right that a civil servant should be appointed as a moralist. It is notable that her report on lockdown parties goes rather easy on the misbehaviour of some officials in that story. Even officially designated moralists have interests they wish to protect.
What officials are good at, and are professionally charged with, are procedures – rules about who should know what when, what processes should be followed in the framing of policy and legislation, who should be consulted in the making of public appointments etc. All prime ministers, not just wild Boris, need advice on these matters, and the obvious person to give it to them is the cabinet secretary, since he is at the apex of the system. They also need a senior political colleague – Mrs T had Willie Whitelaw – who can collect a sense from the party and the whips of what goes too far, who is not to be trusted, and so on. We got on better before the growth of the 21st-century ethics industry. Such ways of doing things are often informal and sometimes messy, but so is human life, the context in which real morality operates. In this week’s Times, the normally wise Anthony Seldon calls for a commission to ‘make recommendations about how to embed integrity’. No, you cannot legislate for virtue.
In the largely unfavourable media discussions of Boris’s ethical standards, David Cameron is often credited with inventing the phrase ‘the greased piglet’ to describe his eventual successor. This is a false attribution. The phrase was the collective invention of us, Boris’s Telegraphcolleagues, many years before he held high office. The full title was ‘the greased albino piglet’. But the full story is odder. I think it was Boris himself who first put it in a column (minus the ‘albino’), describing Tony Blair’s political skills. We got it from him.
As someone who loves and uses trains and dislikes cars, I would not welcome it, but the rail strike is making me wonder if a railway system will survive in Britain. Despite the reforms of the 1980s, no government has ever dared tackle its unions. Covid has now made rail’s already big losses unsustainably huge, and significant numbers of people have abolished their dependence on rail by working from home. Could it be time to revive the idea of Sir Alfred Sherman, the most abrasive of all Mrs Thatcher’s advisers, that the railways should be turned into bus lanes? The environmental damage would be slight, since little new land would be needed. In our net-zero age, perhaps these new lanes could be reserved for electric vehicles only, a literal example of an ‘ethics corridor’.
Sebastian Coe says that if it is ‘a judgment about fairness or inclusion, I will always fall down on the side of fairness’. This formulation should apply not just to trans athletes, but universally.
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