ETHICS IN PUBLIC LIFE are now more at the centre of our attention than they have ever been, even among people who may not usually spend much time on such matters.
Covid-19 brought the long-running background of Prime Ministerial mendacity, crony contracts, personal greed trumping public good and cynically careless messaging to the fore. It became a dull rumble, nagging at and then undermining our trust. Then ‘Partygate’ began to unroll and unravel, causing mounting anger in an electorate which had sacrificed so much and suffered so greatly since the pandemic came crashing into our lives two years ago, bringing lockdown, fear and grief.
The casual hedonism of Downing Street parties which were not parties, which didn’t happen, then did happen; of which Boris Johnson insisted that no rules were broken and anyway he wasn’t there until he was; the squirming casuistry with which he and his ministers insulted the nation’s intelligence, the muddied waters swilling around Sue Gray’s report and the Metropolitan Police: all this has brought the moral decay in our public life into sharp focus.
And now, we are facing the hitherto unthinkable. A war on European soil is tearing Ukraine and its people apart and threatening the entire international rules-based order. Behind it, the spectre of nuclear conflagration fleers and gibbers like a demon released from a medieval wall painting to bring existential terror into our 21st century democracies. We are challenged to rethink our responsibilities, to examine what we have been willing to turn away from, recognising the consequences which have sprung into hideous life out of the equivocation and self-interest which is by no means the the sole preserve of politicians. Clichés have their uses, if only as shorthand for partially understood complexities. We speak and write of the ‘moral compass’ – I am as guilty as the next woman here. But now is the time to consider what that phrase might be obscuring.
If a compass is to be of use, there must be a clear start point. We need to determine our eastings and northings before setting out and continue to pay attention to the grid as the journey unfolds. I believe an examined life must be conducted between two points of tension. At one end is “consider it possible you may be mistaken”. At the other, Martin Luther’s great cry: “here I stand, I can do no other”. The demand made on intellect, conscience and soul is immense: how do we assess and manage changing circumstances, new knowledge and personal development? How do we weigh tentative humilities in the scales of the immutable?
An ethical system may have many footings: religion, doctrine, experience, personal awareness. None of these can be permitted to become exclusive because that is to blur our common responsibilities. Respect and empathy must be at the heart of our thinking and action if we are to begin to change the growing dysfunction of government. The Golden Rule, found in almost all ethical traditions, is our lodestar here. It may be worded slightly differently across these traditions, but its heart is simple and challenging: “what is hateful to you, do not do to another.” It invites reciprocity but does not depend upon it. Nor does it – despite some of the tantrums in evidence on social media and on the green benches – have any part with ‘whataboutery’ and point scoring. It is something to be lived, maybe at great cost, if a morally mature polity is to be built. It is the atmosphere which politicians should breathe.
The security architecture of Europe will need to be rebuilt and to accomplish that, the wilful situational blindness of government which looks away from realities for political and financial gain, must be challenged. We will need to find our moral anchor. Then, perhaps, we might find a place to stand and begin the task.
Finding a secure place to drop anchor does not mean the end of striving or travelling. But a sound mooring is essential for protection from the moral shipwreck which has begun to threaten us all.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen