Integrity, politics and the imitation of virtue

Integrity, politics and the imitation of virtue

Jill Segger
By Jill Segger
15 Apr 2010

Among the many facets of integrity, perhaps the most pivotal is the principled consistency which makes a person morally coherent.

During recent days, both the Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling and Stuart MacLennan, Labour's (now former) parliamentary candidate for Moray, have been found lacking in that quality and there can be very few citizens who have not become aware of their shortcomings.

Such widespread exposure of opinions which present a conflict with a politician's public face would have been far less likely at the last general election. Technology has not only radically changed communication, it has also made it impossible for those in public life to build a quarantine barrier around their on and off-duty opinions. This should not be construed as an intrusion into privacy.

Running for public office – particularly at a time when voters are so disillusioned and hostile – demands a clear understanding of the importance of integrity. The electorate has no rights over the leisure time or personal conversations of those who seek their votes, but it can and should expect that statements of opinion on policy will have a framework of principle which keeps them consistent, and that candidates will respect the dignity of those whom they seek to represent and of those who oppose them.

Chris Grayling, caught on tape at a meeting of the Centre for Policy Studies, expressing the view that Bed and Breakfast traders “have a right to decide who comes into their own home” to the detriment of gay couples and in contradiction of a law he claims to support, is arguably more guilty of muddled thinking than of deceit. (As a first step to clarifying his thought processes, he might try out the consequences of suggesting that conscience permits a B&B owner to exclude black or Jewish customers).

However, the integrity of accepting party policy - or resigning if conscientiously unable to do so - and the humility to know that there are occasions when holding one's tongue is not a betrayal of principle, appear to have been lacking. Neither deficiency is a recommendation of fitness for holding one of the great offices of state.

The Tories are hardly likely to be unaware of this, but they are obviously unwilling to drop Grayling. By keeping him well out of the public eye, they are presumably waiting for this specific instance of moral and intellectual inconsistency to be forgotten. In doing so, they have missed an opportunity to instigate a wider debate on the real difficulties of adjudicating between differing interests and the collective responsibility which that entails. Both politicians and voters could have benefited from such a discussion.

The puerile and thoroughly nasty Tweets of Stuart MacLennan have at least been dealt with promptly by the Labour party. A candidate who places mockery of the elderly, jokes about slavery and insults to women and prospective constituents in the public domain, and who indulges in descriptions of political opponents which the Guardian considered “too offensive to reproduce”, is a disgrace to himself, his party and to the very concept of decency in politics.

This is not high-hatted Puritanism. Anyone who has ever taken an active part in an election campaign will know that after a trying day on the doorsteps, expressions may be used in private which would not be appropriate at a family meal table or at a church elders' meeting. But over decades of political campaigning, I have never encountered such a disconnect between the advertised principle and the actual behaviour as that evinced by MacLennan.

The degree of casual deceit and indifference to probity displayed in his own prediction: “Iain Dale (Tory blogger) reckons the biggest gaffes will likely be made by candidates on Twitter – what are the odds it will be me?” reveal him as unworthy of public or party trust. There are also questions to be asked as to the moral alertness of the various selection bodies which permitted him to become a candidate.

This election is being Tweeted, blogged and YouTubed in a manner which would have been unimaginable in 2005. Every pratfall has a high probability of going viral, to the embarrassment of its perpetrator and the diversion of the electorate. No wonder politicians are at such pains to say so little which has meaning, for fear of giving a hostage to fortune. But the upside is a potential for keeping politicians honest.

Knowing that occasions of inconsistency, double-think and plain
duplicity are very likely to be recorded on mobile phones and disseminated through social networking media as well as by the traditional media, politicians may, through necessity, learn the outward usages of integrity.

In all probability, that will still conceal a degree of hypocrisy, but I choose to believe that even the imitation of virtue may eventually lead to the real thing.

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© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

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