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Sting, bite, and morality at No. 10

30 April 2021

SLEAZE is not a common topic for this newspaper. Our search engine pulls up only a handful of uses of the word in these pages in the past decade. As a general rule, we are relieved to say, a combination of sexual and financial impropriety is infrequent in the Churches about which we write. We do, though, remark occasionally on the behaviour of public servants, and, although the non-appearance of search terms is inadequate evidence, it remains the norm that the Government and the Civil Service have remained fundamentally honest over these years. We concur with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s plea to cut politicians some slack, particularly when facing challenges beyond the competence of many. And there is truth in his contention that “morality has got much more sting and bite than it ever used to. . . Let’s not pretend that politicians are worse: if anything, they’re better.”

The ready judgementalism that has infected social media might well have been on the Archbishop’s mind. There is a danger, however, that, having acquired the necessary habit of ignoring the sniping on Twitter, the Government feels that it has a licence to turn its back on criticism from any source, however justified. The tendency simply to deny things that have been said and done, and then keep on denying them till the public loses interest, and then attack critics for being persistent, has brought a new unpleasantness to politics. The problem is that both the Opposition and the press have lacked the strength to uphold this morality in the face of a noticeable shift by this administration away from accountability. The Brexit campaign brought a step-change not only in the relationship between the UK and Europe but also between Westminster and the electorate. The Johnson administration believes that it can behave as it wishes without significantly damaging its electoral prospects because of the wider electorate’s broad-mindedness, lack of interest, gullibility, short-term memory, or ignorance, or a combination of any of these.

The Book of Proverbs contains much that is pertinent. The Prime Minister, in permitting (or directing) his team to attack his former aide Dominic Cummings, might regret failing to heed the advice in Proverbs 26.20: “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.” More benefit might be gained by reading chapter 28: “He that turneth away his ear from the law, even his prayer shall be abomination” (v.9); “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper” (13); “Whoso walketh uprightly shall be saved” (18); “To have respect of persons is not good” (21). Precepts for governing with integrity are hardly lacking in the scriptures, and there are plenty of warnings about what happens when these are neglected: more often than not, the whole country suffers.

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