Saturday, 23 May 2009

Praying Politics with Rowan Williams

I don't know if Rowan Williams has employed the services of a ghost-writer (a Holy Ghost-writer, perhaps) but his latest message to the nation, in the Times, contained none of his usual opacity. Clarity can be dangerous too, of course. His most headline-catching assertion, that "the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price" for the future of British democracy, has been greeted in some quarters with a similar reception to that accorded Archbishop Nichols' ruminations on the "courage" of child-raping clerics in Ireland. But that wasn't even the main point of his column.

A word, first, on the denigration of politicians. There have been three main targets for public anger over the past couple of weeks. First, a number of particular MPs and ministers who appear to have milked the system. Not all are equally guilty; but some undoubtedly did treat the public purse as their personal piggy-bank, even if they were "within the rules", and a few appear to have committed something close to fraud. Many others fell into the category identified by Nadine Dorries - they were told that the Parliamentary allowance was "a pot of money with their name on it" in lieu of salary, because no MP "had the political courage" to raise MPs salaries. If true, of course, this would mean that all those MPs were complicit in a fraud against the electorate to disguise the true size of their salaries. I hardly think this redounds to their moral advantage, but hey.

(By the way, the Dorries Blog has now been taken down after the Barclay brothers' solicitors served notice on her server. It is exactly as I feared - though since the twins are famously litigious this hardly makes me a new Nostradamus. Can you libel someone by calling them "litigious"? Yes - but only if they don't sue you over it...)

Then there's anger at "the system". This is, potentially, at least, fruitful, even necessary anger. It has focused rather too narrowly on the issue of MPs' pay and allowances, but the fury isn't due to that alone. The spectacle of MPs feeling entitled to help themselves to what look like perks at the taxpayers' expense - perks denied to most members of the public - reinforces the belief that they belong to a pampered elite. And they do. The political-media class identified by Peter Oborne and others has over the past decade or so developed many characteristics of a self-perpetuating caste (including hereditary succession). Politicians and political journalists talk to each other, and to focus groups. When they address the public, it is in patronising soundbites. There has been a strong sense that questions of policy and public service (which for most voters, is what "politics" is really about) is far less important, to politicians, than the soap opera of personalities and fluctuating careers. This is what "they're all the same" really means.

The homogeneity of politicians, and of their messages, is something new - or at least something revived (there was a "political class" for most of the 19th century, after all, when many leading figures began as Whigs and ended as Tories, or began as Tories and ended as Liberals, or belonged to informal Parliamentary groupings). Gordon Brown let the cat out of the bag when addressing the Royal College of Nursing recently (his "apology") with his reference to MPs as members of the political "profession". Politics has, indeed, increasingly acquired the characteristics of a profession, including a conventional career-path (student activist; special adviser/lobbyist; candidate; MP; minister; has-been; lord), regulatory bodies (now to be greatly expanded) and, most importantly, a sense of professional camaraderie. And, as George Bernard Shaw said, all professions are a conspiracy against the public.

None of this means that all MPs are bad people, or dishonourable, or in it merely for themselves. This undifferentiated hatred aimed at the persons of MPs - the third of the "angers" - is dangerous and wrong, as Rowan Williams is correct to point out. Even within the limits imposed by a failing system, the majority of MPs do their best. Even the fact that they are to a large extent products of a conveyor-belt which detaches them from the public they are supposed to represent is not actually their fault. It is a consequence of the general hollowing-out of the system, and of the transformation of political parties from mass movements to centralised marketing campaigns. There is a danger that the collapse in faith in the system - an inevitable working out of Lincoln's maxim that you can't fool all of the people all of the time - will make the political class (once they get over the present difficulty) even more self-isolating and unaccountable.

Archbishop Williams' actual focus was much broader than the plea to hug an MP which was picked up by the headline-writers for an easy quote. He was writing about what he called "a basic problem in our moral thinking" - the tendency in many walks of life for people to do what they can get away with "within the rules", rather than instinctively doing the right thing, informed by a developed moral conscience. He finds the prevailing attitude to be a form of "moral myopia", and a consequence of people lacking self-respect - which he interestingly defines as "that sense of being glad to do certain things because they're the kind of things they are". Following the letter of "the rules" is, he finds, a poor alternative to acting from inner principle. And it's getting worse:

Regulation comes in, necessarily, when you recognise that you can't rely as much as you might hope on people's intelligence or goodwill. But this can turn into an excuse for failing to encourage intelligence and goodwill in the first place. Exhaustive anti-discrimination provisions, for example, get enacted when authority has found reason to suspect a comprehensive lack of charity and good sense. But they can also weaken the conviction that the best foundation for fairness is an ingrained habit of respect, bound up with one's own self-respect. And, once again, they create that disreputable atmosphere of asking how little you need to do to comply.

He thinks that politicians, or others, should recover a sense of "vocation":

We talk about people's vocations most readily when we see them clearly doing things that don't bring easy rewards. But if the culture is such that regulation takes the place of virtue, we shouldn't be too surprised if public figures show signs of the virus and take refuge in the “no rules were broken” tactic. We trust volunteers in various settings because we sense that they act out of gladness to be doing what they do, never mind the rewards....

It would be a tragedy if our present troubles spelt the end of any confidence that politics and public service could and should be a calling worthy of the most generous instincts.

I think's that's almost spot-on. Williams believes that the best answer to this problem lies in "religion-based morality". He would, of course. Even if he's right (he isn't), I don't think that could be the solution for a society as deeply secular as modern Britain. In any case, there are severe problems with any religion-based morality. Quite apart from being based on probable falsehoods, religious systems are (or can be) morally just as lazy as rule-following. Indeed, they often are little more than rule-following; it's just that the rules are laid down by priests or found in ancient texts rather than being imposed by bureaucrats. That said, religion does often provide an effective short-cut to moral behaviour. Often, the religious answer is a good approximation to what a philosophically correct answer would be, and reaching it doesn't involve the complex ruminations for which only professional philosophers have the time, inclination or training.

Religion sometimes provides the wrong answer, of course: it can institutionalise oppression, create misery for those who don't fit in to a rigid social or sexual template, and demand perverse and immoral behaviour. And once religion gets into a position of power, whether in Iran or in Ireland, it tends to behave worse than almost any secular regime. I won't be voting for the Rev George Hargreaves. Nevertheless, we do, if we are to restore a functioning democratic system, need something like a sacralisation of political life. We used to have it - but it didn't owe much to religion. It was a creed rooted in the historical experience of British development, above all in the conventions that once governed public life but which, because they were largely unwritten, were powerless in the face of a ruling clique that saw no reason to abide by them. Indeed, Tony Blair made no secret of his impatience with the niceties of British (really, English) constitutional form. It is no coincidence that New Labour's trashing of ancient forms and liberties has gone hand in hand with the triumph of a disjointed, dessicated and largely cynical political elite.

In the phrase ironically beloved of our present rulers, British politicians generally used to "play by the rules". For the Tories, their inner constitutionality - their instinctive Whiggism - was bound up in their sense of themselves as politicians. Many Labour politicians who did not share this sense of an ennobling history (though many did, of course) had their own inner light, derived from the working communities from which they sprang and of which they often had personal experience. Such instincts still exist in many of today's politicians, but the culture and tradition of service that nurtured them has been destroyed. In its place, we will get "external regulation", more elaborate codes of conduct, more mutual suspicion and scrutiny. It won't work. Rowan Williams is right about that. For once.


cabalamat said...

Then there's anger at "the system". This is, potentially, at least, fruitful, even necessary anger.

I would like to see some of that anger focussed on reforming parliament. This is a golden opportunity to reform the system.

It has focused rather too narrowly on the issue of MPs' pay and allowances, but the fury isn't due to that alone.

You're right. As you say, politicians are a "pampered elite". And instead of them being our servants, they are our masters. We need to redress this, to take power away from the political elite and put it back where it belongs, with the people.

cabalamat said...

When they address the public, it is in patronising soundbites. There has been a strong sense that questions of policy and public service (which for most voters, is what "politics" is really about) is far less important, to politicians, than the soap opera of personalities and fluctuating careers. This is what "they're all the same" really means.

There's a tendency for people to think that the expenses scandal doesn't really matter because it doesn't affect how politicans make decisions in governing the country. I disagree; I think politicians' greed leads directly to bad government.

valdemar squelch said...

Good on you for giving Dr W a fair crack of the whip. But is he wrong to tell people not to vote BMP? I have an uneasy feelng that some people will be saying 'Well, he's got a couple of palaces, hasn't he? He's not so different from that lot, spending other people's cash.' I'm sure that, morally, Dr W is a better man than my MP (David bloody Clelland) but there's some weight in the view that high priests of the state voodooe cult should be very careful not to tell us how to vote.

Cranmer's Curate said...

The intercession for politicians in the Book of Common Prayer is as follows: 'Grant unto her (the Monarch's) whole council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently (impartially) minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.'

The fact that the British nation and indeed politicians themselves aren't praying that any more surely accounts for the decline of virtue in politics.

WeepingCross said...

Valdemar, instinctively I agree. I think (hope?) the Church of England is far further down the road of purging itself of its urge towards political power than some other denominations (I think of my brothers and sisters of the Roman observance, particularly), and Rowan is further down the road than most of his fellow bishops. But there's still a residual instinct in that direction which combines with combines with the CofE's basic liberal decency to persuade the bishops that they have a duty to wag their fingers at people and tell them not to vote for racists - as though anyone would care. To be fair, I think they're responding to the BNP's attempt to paint itself as defender of the sort of 'Christian' national identity which people who never go anywhere near a church believe in; but I suspect they would be better employed pointing that out. Tell people not to vote BNP and it becomes difficult to construct a case for refraining from telling them not to vote for the Tories, or something ludicrous like that.

Yes, thank you Heresiarch for bothering to dig deeper than the headlines in the Abp's case. The new biography of him by Mr Shortt gives very good examples of both sorts of his prose - the beautifully lucid stuff and matter so clotted you'd think a scientist wrote it.

C's C, the sulphurous vigour of the Prayer Book indeed concentrates the mind wonderfully. But I think Elizabeth I, if nobody else, knew who between her and her bishops was in charge.