Manners and the Minister: the insolence of power

By Jill Segger
September 24, 2012

It may appear graceless to ask the question, but how likely is it that Andrew Mitchell would have managed even the evasive partial apology heard today if he had thought he could get away with his arrogant loutishness towards officers of the Diplomatic Protection Group and retain his job?

Whatever the exact words spoken, it is apparent that the Chief Whip has an attitude to power which does him no credit. It is, unfortunately, one which appears to be gaining ground. Power, I believe, is best understood as the capacity to act. There is therefore a moral imperative that it be exercised with discernment and a degree of humility. The Judaeo-Christian tradition offers a model, in the ideal of the Suffering Servant and in the radically challenging inversions offered by Jesus – the last being placed first, the taking of the lowest seat and the washing of one another's feet – which places power at the service of the common good.

Where power becomes solely a means of gathering wealth and status, it quickly isolates its practitioners from both knowledge of, and consideration for, those outside its charmed circle. Political power is perhaps the milieu in which this is both most apparent and most abhorrent, but it can be found in all walks of life where people are in a position to command and control others.

Our divisive educational system, obsession with class and growing inequality teaches some to consider themselves superior from an early age. The language reported to have been used by Andrew Mitchell would seem to indicate that he had learned this lesson well. It is important to remember that what comes out of the mouth reveals the habit of the mind. The timeless truth that more is rightly expected from those to whom most has been given, appears not to have taken root in his thinking. Frustrated by an apparently trivial matter, he could only see the position given him by the electorate and the patronage of his party leader as entitling him to have his own way and worse, to seek to bully and intimidate in a situation of unequal power.

As long as a dissociation between position and responsibility and a divorce of privilege from grace is thought acceptable at any level of society, the insolence of power will go unchecked. We need to re-frame the conversation arising from the Chief Whip's tantrum in terms of the dignity of service.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: You can follow Jill on Twitter at:

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