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Are Cabinet members too rich to govern?

21 April 2023

Brian Castle asks whether millionaires have the moral authority to order the lives of the poor

IN FEBRUARY, I watched President Zelensky of Ukraine addressing the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. His speech clearly showed that he is a man of moral as well as political authority.

While political authority is given, moral authority is earned. The conflicts of Holy Week are a stark reminder that moral authority does not always reside alongside political authority. Effective leadership requires moral authority: political authority on its own is not enough.

President Zelensky earns his moral authority through the way he is handling the huge crisis facing his country, by sharing his people’s hardships, by his willingness to risk his life in the service of his people and by speaking on their behalf in every forum that he can. He has their best interests at heart.

Moral authority comes from a number of sources and influences both within and outside of ourselves, but is recognised through who we are, and how we act. The leadership guru Larry Sternberg helpfully describes moral authority in this way: “Moral authority is not about having the power to force people to follow one’s lead. It is the ability to influence people through the virtue of one’s character, the strength of one’s example, and the wisdom of one’s words.”

PRESIDENT ZELENSKY indirectly raises important questions for our own democratic system. How much moral authority do the Prime Minister and Cabinet have in their handling of the large number of strikes currently disrupting the country? More specifically, does a Cabinet full of millionaires and multi-millionaires have any moral authority when they try to negotiate the wages of some of the lowest paid in the country? They may have political authority, but do they have moral authority?

This is not a party-political issue, because the leaders of all the main political parties are millionaires. Nor is it a personal attack on politicians who are millionaires: after all, they have offered to serve their country, and are doing the task laid upon them by the British electorate. Nor is it an indictment of millionaires who have accumulated their wealth ethically.

Rather, it highlights two important questions. First, are we content with our political system as it is, where only the rich wield governmental power? Second, given that the political pendulum has swung towards the rich having the power, is it morally right that they should make decisions about the poorest in society?

SO, FIRST, the political system: why is it that today only millionaires and multi-millionaires are entrusted with the levers of power? It is all the more bewildering when, in announcing that from April, MPs will be awarded a salary increase of £2440, the chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) added: “Serving as an MP should not be the preserve of those wealthy enough to fund it themselves. It is important for our democracy that people from any background should see representing their communities in Parliament as a possibility.”

While political leaders show concern towards the poorest in society, the system they administer is obsessed by wealth, which results in the commodification of the people the system is established to serve. People are dehumanised and regarded as economic statistics.

Furthermore, just as many are trapped by poverty and cannot flourish as human beings, so, too, some of those who administer the system are trapped by wealth, which explains the dominance of the narrative of wealth in our national conversations.

We are, in effect, a plutocracy. We are governed almost exclusively by the wealthy. Why is it that our political system allows only people of wealth to climb to the heights of the political ladder, despite the aspirations of the democratic spirit so clearly articulated by the chair of IPSA? They may not have been wealthy when they began their ascent, but it appears that they need to be, to reach the higher echelons.

There is a diversity of gender, cultures, and skills in the Cabinet; where is the diversity of financial backgrounds which, in turn, would provide a greater diversity of employment backgrounds? Just as the diversity of gender and cultures makes it possible for wider groups of citizens to identify with their political leaders, a diversity of financial and employment backgrounds would increase that identification. This is not happening in the UK.

SO, DOES a Cabinet of millionaires led by a multi-millionaire have the moral authority to make decisions about the wages of the lowest paid?

For leadership to have moral authority, leaders need to be seen willing to take personal risks for their people which will show that their leaders have their best interests at heart.

Leaders also need to be able to identify with and share some of the hardships being faced by the people about whose lives they are to take decisions: there is little indication that, in this harsh financial climate and under the present system, our millionaire politicians can do this.

In the corporate leadership of Cabinet government, the features of moral authority can be shared across the Cabinet: they do not all need to reside in one person. The fault, I believe, does not lie with the individuals who have offered themselves to serve, but lies somewhere in the system which they are required to uphold.

Dr Brian Castle is an Honorary Assistant Bishop in Bath & Wells. He was Bishop of Tonbridge from 2002 to 2015.


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