It was Louis Heren, a foreign correspondent for the Times, who said – in words famously cited by Jeremy Paxman – that when a politician told him something in confidence, he always thought: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” In recent years, it often seems, Heren’s dictum has spread out to the British population at large, and is now smeared across the lens through which it views its public servants.
In this perception, the halls of Westminster are crammed with greasers and fixers, intent – if only they still could – on squeezing every penny from the public purse to tart up their second homes. When the political classes are discussed, the phrase: “Well, they’re all the same, aren’t they, out for themselves” has become a blandly acceptable conversation-sealer. And then there are the hospital managers, desperately covering up life-threatening cock-ups, and doting Lords and doddery judges and lying police chiefs. We have almost come to relish the notion that Britain is in a duplicitous mess.
The persistent exceptions to this worldview, it seems, are people who have come to live here from elsewhere, who often inform you that they think Britain is “fair”. By this they mean that its institutions are not generally corrupt: there are rules, and they are mainly operated honestly. Bribery is not widespread, and advancement is not invariably secured by nepotism or a system of favours. Because many new arrivals hail from states in which these advantages are far from guaranteed, the contrast strikes them as worth remarking on.
Then, too, there are individuals who sharply challenge this narrative of selfish public servants. During the recent ISIS atrocities in London and Manchester, police and paramedics raced into potential danger to protect the public and treat the injured and dying. There was PC Keith Palmer, killed by an Islamist fanatic while guarding the Houses of Parliament: a Conservative minister, Tobias Ellwood, ran to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. And there was Jo Cox, the young Labour MP murdered by a far-right extremist as she left her weekly surgery for constituents: while injured, she reportedly told her female assistants to run: “Let him hurt me, don’t let him hurt you.”
On a less dramatic level, innumerable judges, doctors, teachers, police officers, civil servants and others try every day to do their jobs to the very best of their abilities. Their commitment is relied upon, but rarely remarked upon. Good news is often no news at all – yet the aberrations are so frequently and juicily reported that they can come to seem like the norm.
I should declare an interest in this territory: among other things, I am currently doing a year-long fellowship at Westminster Abbey Institute, a body set up to work with the institutions around Parliament Square in order to “revitalise moral and ethical values in public life”. This is a bold aspiration, which issues perhaps more easily from the Abbey than the place across the road.
Politicians have been publicly wary of the m-word – morality – ever since John Major’s 1993 Back to Basics appeal to traditional values floundered in a sea of sexual and financial allegations against Conservative politicians. But morality in policy-making is about wider, more profound questions than an MP’s affair. There is virtually no decision that is not somehow tethered to a broader argument about the public benefit: all questions are moral questions.
The Institute’s director, Claire Foster-Gilbert, examines this territory in a timely, thought-provoking book of lectures and essays called The Moral Heart of Public Service, published this month. In it, numerous writers including the historian Peter Hennessy and the former foreign secretary William Hague discuss ways to work for good in the world without the meddling connotations of do-gooding. Hague argues for the role of the “restless conscience” in opposing sexual violence in war. Hennessy speaks of the need to create Benedictine “islands of stability” in a fast-changing UK, but also to hang on to “the virtue of hope”. Foster-Gilbert herself provides a three-part framework of moral analysis by which decisions can be measured, since “we make moral decisions all the time, whether we own it and know it or not.”
And the media? I believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between the free, sharp scrutiny of the British press and the relative absence of corruption in our institutions. We should not be composed of Pollyannas. But too much rampant exultation in the negative – particularly at a time when political structures are crumbling – changes the media from a cleansing to a caustic force, eroding mutual trust, and turning every public figure into a joke or a charlatan.
It might be time to set aside Heren’s maxim – or at least, to carry alongside it a voice that also asks: “What good might this person be trying to advance?” If you really do want to build up decency, after all, you must first begin by believing that it exists.
Jenny McCartney is a writer and reviewer