In July 2022, just before Boris Johnson’s resignation, Nick Timothy—Theresa May’s former Chief of Staff—surveyed in the Daily Telegraph the detritus of law-breaking by lawmakers, parliamentary sleaze, cash-for-honours and the possible misleading of Parliament, and called for moral renewal in our nation and among our elected representatives.
It is a highly laudable call, but how is such a renewal to come about, and what might be its features? At this time of a leadership contest in the Conservative Party (brought about at least in part by failures in moral leadership), these are questions that need to be asked of ourselves and of those seeking to lead us. Questions cannot be limited to who is going to cut taxes the most, or to curb illegal immigration more strictly.
Knowing the difference between right and wrong cannot just be a matter of returning to old political and social conventions. Such discernment must be made on the basis of right belief about ourselves, our place in the universe, and our relations with our fellow human beings. We become persons through our relationships with others: family, friends, and even adversaries. Radical views of autonomy will only lead to selfishness and greed.
Decisions about assisted suicide, for example, cannot be taken just because I might feel guilty or embarrassed if I became dependent on others for help in daily living. I would have to take into consideration the feelings and future of my spouse, my children, our wider family, and even my friends—not to mention the vulnerable in society at large who would be placed in further danger by my decision. The strengthening of palliative care in general, and the hospice movement in particular, would assist in the management of pain and in end-of-life care; I would need to remember that “last days are not lost days”.
One feature of moral renewal must, therefore, be respect for the inviolable dignity of the person, especially at the earliest and the latest stages of life, and during serious illness. The presumption must always be in favour of life, even if sometimes it is right not to “officiously keep alive”. Such a view of the person cannot, of course, be derived from merely utilitarian principles, or from focus groups and opinion polls. Instead it is firmly rooted in a spiritual view of humanity, based on the Judaeo-Christian teaching that humans are created in the image and likeness of God.
That concept of imago Dei leads us to our commitment to equality. Again, this is based on the insight—shared both by faith and science—that humans have a common origin. It is this which commits us to equality of persons, to equality of civil and political rights, and to equality of opportunity. In a society that values education, effort, and enterprise, it cannot be about equality of outcomes, even if the poorest are cared for in every possible way. Nor can it be about equal regard for every kind of lifestyle and preference, of which there is no end.
The Centre for Social Justice and the Marriage Foundation, for instance, has provided us with abundant evidence that children fare best when they are brought up in stable families, with both parents present and involved in their upbringing. This is in no way to devalue the heroic work of single parents in bringing up their children on their own. It is simply to state that society must recognise a social norm for human flourishing. Children relate differently to their mothers and fathers, and the due involvement of both in play, work and role modelling is highly desirable. Government needs to support stable families, particularly through tax and benefits structures. This will have a significant impact not only in our schools but also on our streets.
We should be not only a just society, but also a compassionate society. This requires us to treat asylum seekers with compassion and humanity, making sure that they have food, clothing, and shelter. Christians are bound to do so themselves and to persuade their fellow citizens to do so as well. This does not, however, amount to state policy. Every state is obliged to take account of the well-being of those already living within its boundaries when assessing how many more people it can accommodate. When claims are judged to be false by competent authority, there should be no inordinate delays in returning people to their countries of origin or in sending them to safe countries who are willing to have them.
Some of those coming to our shores in small boats from the Continent are manifestly coming from a safe country. Some may indeed have suffered persecution, but others may be young men hoping to escape conscription or acquire a better life in the West. These are understandable reasons for risking dangerous journeys, but are they sufficient for the granting of asylum in this country? There can be, and should be, vigorous debate around these issues. Politicians, who have to make tough decisions, should not easily be demonised—unless it can be shown that they are manifestly acting inhumanely or against the national interest.
As the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, pointed out, liberty needs to be attended by responsibility if it is not to lapse into mere libertarianism. Such liberty is grounded in the cumulative tradition of our nation, going back to King Alfred’s Laws, the Charter of Liberties, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the successive repeal of the Test Acts for religious conformity. Any claim to base it on radical Enlightenment claims that it is “self-evident” to “pure reason” will not withstand critical scrutiny. Those wanting to lead Britain today need, at least, to be aware of the tradition in which our valuing of liberty is rooted.
One way in which responsibility can be exercised is that of delaying gratification. For too long, the “bread-and-circuses” bandwagon has given people the impression that there is endless entertainment on tap and no need for people to wait for the fulfilment of their desires. We know, however, that duty to the nation—in times of war or in the cause of peace, for example—can demand that we delay the satisfaction of some of our desires: for marriage and children, the purchase of a home, and many other matters.
If we are called to serve the poor and needy, at home or abroad, this may also mean self-denial, at least for a period, of the immediate gratification of our desires. More and more people are discovering that a proper stewardship of creation also involves denying ourselves the fruits of its exploitation, degradation, and denudation. It will take brave leadership to show a jaded public that not every desire can be met immediately, but that some will have to be postponed or even denied for the sake of the common good.
It is clear that parliamentary and public accountability of politicians and public officials needs to be enhanced. There should be due provision for independent assessments of probity in national life. Without being invasive or prurient, we should nevertheless expect all-round personal integrity and honourable behaviour in the lives of those who wish to lead us. Finally, as even Immanuel Kant had to admit, we must all remember that there is a higher tribunal which no one can escape, however adept they may have been in evading human scrutiny.
Mgr Michael Nazir-Ali is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and a Prelate of Honour to His Holiness the Pope. He is a former Anglican Bishop of Rochester.
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