On 18th October 2021, Westminster Abbey welcomed Parliamentarians to St Margaret’s Church as we mourned the tragic death of Sir David Amess MP.
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Now we join our voice with so many others, echoing the call for a renewed courtesy in public life, and the need for a different conversation that acknowledges our shared humanity.
Each generation has actively to rediscover what we fundamentally share and find a language we can use without hurting each other. Never has that felt more important than now. In the Abbey, we will not cease to speak of reconciliation and we will never lose our hope in a community that can celebrate difference and rejoice in the sound of many voices.
Every single working day in the Chamber of the House of Commons this prayer is said aloud:
… May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind…
And yet it is a pervasive and irrational habit, even amongst the politically engaged and sophisticated, to assert that all politicians present the exact opposite. 'All politicians are corrupt' or at least 'in it for themselves', and incompetent at what they do, we comment lazily; and some of us feel free to say or do far, far worse than this. Our feelings towards politicians are ambivalent at best, and we seem to have been consistently ambivalent, if not downright hostile, throughout the centuries in which we have enjoyed the privilege of electing our leaders. Shakespeare had a multitude of insults for politicians, such as Lear's advice to the blinded Gloucester to 'get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician seem to see the things thou dost not'. We laugh knowingly at, and do not challenge, ee cummings’ more recent suggestion that 'a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man'.
There was no golden age when politicians were universally liked, admired or believed. Even immediately after the Second World War, when we might expect a high level of trust in politicians, only 40% of us did. More recent Ipsos polls have politicians at the bottom of every list of professionals whom we do or don’t trust: lower than estate agents and a lot lower than lawyers.
A confounding, or possibly explanatory, poll run by King's College London showed that 60% of us thought we expected more of our Government than we do of God. So on the one hand we don’t trust politicians and on the other we expect them to be more trustworthy than the Almighty. We simultaneously believe that they are powerless and that they are all powerful.
I would argue that our irrationally extreme contempt for politicians is connected to our equally irrational desire for them to be better than any human can be expected to be. Politicians make promises they and we know they can't keep; but, it seems, we want them to. When in opposition, politicians make sometimes extravagant claims about their ability, were they to be in power, to resolve any number of injustices, to introduce any number of policies that will make all our lives better, and to fulfil our hopes and dreams in any number of ways. Then, when they get into power as the elected Government, they find they can do very little of what they promised, and even what they can do is tremendously compromised. As Nick Clegg pointed out in a dialogue at Westminster Abbey Institute in 2017, when in Government, about 90% of what you do is in reaction to events beyond your control.
One might imagine that we would be delighted if a politician came to our door in the lead up to a General Election and said: 'In all honesty, I'd like to do A, B, C and D when in Government. But if you vote for me, and my party forms the next Government, we're only likely to be able to achieve a bit of B, and maybe some D in a compromised form. My ambitions are mediocre, but I'm being truthful. We both know events will intervene to scupper anything more successful.' If she did that, we might expect to applaud her honesty and vote for her. On the contrary, it seems we want her to tell us she can give us a better future, come what may. We want her to be our Messiah. 'Corbynmania' was only the latest iteration of this visceral expression of the King's College poll. We long for someone to sort the mess out, fulfil our dreams. But when they are elected and we find out that their power is relative and our dreams are not, after all, going to be realised, our mania curdles and turns into hate. There was a phenomenon called 'Cleggmania' in 2010, which swiftly turned once Clegg found himself part of Government and forced to compromise on previously made promises.
Democracy requires politicians to be the constant attendants of power. The need to seek and retain power never goes away, and our political leaders are vulnerable to corruption just by virtue of that. For a democratically elected politician, walking alongside every policy development, every wish for wisdom, is the thought of what its effect will be on gaining or retaining power. It is important to understand and acknowledge that our democracy necessitates this volatility at its heart, or the people would not be able to choose their leaders. It means that democracy obliges a few people, those willing to stand and be counted, to be exposed to the morally corrosive force of power-seeking. And since they are human beings like the rest of us, not the God we want them to be, they are susceptible, and some fall.
Politics has always been a rough trade. It arouses strong feelings and plain speaking, which, sometimes, can turn into abuse. A hard-boiled professional will say 'if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen'. Well, maybe, but the language and tone of politics matters. It can enthuse or repel, excite or deflate, uplift or cast down. Clarify or confuse. It can examine the truth or ignore it. In the 1930s, Oswald Mosley used his oratory to stir up violence. During World War II, Churchill, in Ed Murrow’s memorable phrase: 'mobilised the English language and sent it to war'.
In the 1960s, the Conservative Enoch Powell inflamed opinion on immigration, and the dockers marched in his support. Oratory can change public opinion for good or for ill, and today we need it to explain increasingly complex policy in a way that is readily understood.
The world is different today from the way it was. It has decayed since the popular press fully reported speeches in Parliament. The speeches may have been dry, even dull, but perhaps by osmosis, policy was understood, but it is more difficult now. Today's world is more complex, policy is more complex and today's media world is much more complex. We cannot expect the written press to act as a public service. It is losing readership and fighting for its very existence. In its struggle for survival, it favours sensation, because sensation is more likely to sell newspapers. This entertains but it may not necessarily inform. Many political stories - you will all have read them - are spiced up by 'informed sources'. This is often self-interested, malicious comment and should be read with many a pinch of salt on the side. It may excite and intrigue, but it rarely leaves people very much wiser. Television news is more informative but not always so. Often interviews are brief and confrontational and focused on securing a headline for the next news bulletin. Political news programmes have longer interviews and can be a better source of information but they, too, often slip into confrontation. And, in each of the above charades, the electorate is left perhaps confused and, almost certainly, uninformed.
We cannot only blame the media. Spin and soundbite were political inventions. They replaced argument with meaningless phrases: Labour's 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'; and the Conservative's 'take back control' serve as memorable examples of pitch-perfect absurdity. They convey nothing, they explain nothing, and they are worth nothing. And they can mislead, as I have discovered: I once used a phrase 'back to basics' and it was taken up to pervert a thoroughly worthwhile social policy, persuading people it was about something quite different. And the low point was reached when politicians were offered a daily 'form of words' by their parties to be trotted out in every interview. This is not only undignified, it is self-defeating. As voters hear our elected representatives uttering puerile slogans instead of explaining policy, it is no wonder, is it, if respect melts away? Slogans and sound bites are a deceit. Electors deserve the truth in plain English, not in fairytales. When trust in our elected representative falls, democracy fails.
Now there are, I concede, rare occasions when public interest demands, I think the expression is, that you are 'economical with the truth' but, in the main, clarity and honesty really are the best policy. And by honesty, I mean more than simply straight-talking. I mean honesty in facing up to challenges, honesty in acknowledging fears and dangers and difficulties, honesty in action, honesty in admitting there are limitations to what any government can do. Honesty can be very politically inconvenient, but less so than concealing the truth. Honesty commands respect. Slogans and soundbites do not. Spin certainly does not. Honesty is essential in a functioning democracy. It is infuriating to listen to interviews where every question is side-stepped, or answered with obfuscation. Such conduct treats the electorate with contempt and no one should be surprised if they return the compliment. I do not wish to be prissy about this and appear to suggest there was some past, mythical age in which everything was perfect. If there was, I have never heard of it; I was certainly never part of it.
But politicians can do better to serve the electorate and I think, at this moment, it would be a very good idea for them to do so.
The essence of our democracy is 'one man, one vote'. However, except in the ballot box, no democracy, in truth, offers equal influence to every citizen. Anthony Trollope wrote in his biography of Cicero, and I quote, 'the power of voting was common to all citizens: but the power of influencing the electors had passed into the hands of the rich'. Now, that was, of course, two millennia ago in Ancient Rome, but the same power of influencing - not remotely to the same extent - lingers on in some modern democracies. The very rich, if they assert themselves, may be able to influence government. In America (I speak as someone who is one-quarter American so I think I am entitled to say what I think about America) big money perverts the system. The sheer cost of their elections, with most of it spent on advertisements attacking their opponents, is enormous. A Member of Congress seeking election every two years is perpetually fundraising. No wonder they do not have passports and do not go abroad. Even if donors ask nothing in return for their generosity, that generosity is likely to be in the mind of the politician as he or she considers policy, and it ought not to be. In the UK, we are luckier: money is far less damaging to our system, but it still manifests itself through party funding. Party funding is an acute dilemma. All political parties must raise money to campaign, to run their organisations, to pay their staff, and none can hope to fund this through membership subscriptions alone.
There are only two ways to fund the balance and neither is attractive. At present, the bulk of funding is by wealthy individuals, business, and the trades unions. This is bound to give rise to obligations, whether sought or not sought by the donor, and is intrinsically unhealthy. In my experience, many donors are altruistic and give money simply because they wish to support the party of their choice, but some may seek to exact a price. Whether that price is a policy promise, an appointment, or an honour, it is undesirable. An alternative is more funding through the public purse. This would be deeply unpopular with the electorate and I share the general distaste for it. Nonetheless, democratically, it may be the least bad option. A compromise might be more state funding than at present but, in return, a legal limit on donations from individuals, or businesses, or trades unions: a legal limit that should be set at a level where nobody could subsequently reasonably argue that it influences policy, or buys reward. Such a scheme is not perfect and it is certainly unpopular, but, on balance, I believe it would be beneficial for our democratic system.
Here tonight, in this magnificent and hallowed place, we are surrounded by the spirits of many historical figures who were elected over the ages to represent us. Over many centuries. Many generations. Through times of strife and turmoil, times of uncertainty and change, times of national crisis and times of celebration. They are commemorated here for the service that they gave in their lifetime to our nation. Whatever their political beliefs, they were all elected by the people to serve the people, and it was the people who had the power to dismiss them.
As a boy, I read Edmund Burke and let me quote him now:
To deliver an opinion is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and unrespectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always seriously to consider […] but authoritative instructions, mandates issued, in which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience, these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
I agree with that Burke quote, without qualification.
As that young boy across the Thames, 60-odd years ago, I would never have anticipated that the weight of that responsibility would ever fall upon my own shoulders. It was a privilege, but a burden too, as it is for all who bear it. And all must ask themselves: 'did I do what I believed to be right? Did I speak up and was I not afraid to speak the truth?' We are blessed to live in this land but each and every one of us has a responsibility to keep democracy alive and fresh and kicking and never stifle free speech or freedom of action, provided it is within the law. Earlier, I spoke of my soapbox in Brixton, and the tolerance that was shown to me in the salad days of my young political life by many who could quite reasonably have taken a very different view from mine. 'I do not like what you say', said Voltaire, 'but I will defend to the death your right to say it'. Indeed so. That is the responsibility of democracy.
The Westminster Abbey Institute works with the public service institutions around Parliament Square to revitalise moral and spiritual values in public life. Find out more about their work:
It’s a privilege to live and work here – the Abbey really is the heart of the country and its history.