Friday, 5 June 2009

Leadership and morality

As I have no idea of how many of you are UK residents I need to fill in a little bit of the background to the current political situation over here. These are dark days. Gordon Brown’s government, beleaguered and astonishingly unpopular, is clearly in its last days. I am not aware that he has publicly been compared to a zombie but he has certainly been recently called a dead man walking. The government is beset by defections, allegations and recriminations; the ship of state is now so deep in the water that it cannot surely stay afloat long. Indeed, by the time you read this blog Brown may have resigned. For three weeks we have had day after day of revelations on how ministers and others have sought to bend or break various rules in order to maximise their income. A vast majority of the country now firmly believes that most, if not all, of our politicians are actually corrupt.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilt on our leaders and I do not want to say any more about them in particular. What I want to comment on is the interesting effect on public morality that this succession of mini scandals has had. I haven't exactly heard anybody say ’Well, if they can do it so can I’ but I've heard things are pretty close to it. There has been an almost audible slackening of the nation's ethical standards; a collective sigh of relief that tax dodging, expenses fiddling and sharp property deals are actually no longer serious offences. If national morality was a needle on a gauge then we have had it flicker and sink ever lower. The date cannot be far away when the accused turns to the judge and says ‘Your honour, in my defence, I was only doing what my MP has been doing for years.’ I am not personally terribly surprised at these revelations (I lived in Lebanon for eight years where almost all politicians were seriously corrupt) but I do not find them uplifting. One had hoped for better things in a country famed for its decency and democracy.

Let me make three observations. The first is that this shows the utter importance of leadership. It may sound blindingly obvious – and perhaps it is – but leadership is important in setting the moral tone of the country. I am not sure how much we learn from example, but I do know that we set our standards from it. We are a species that suffers from herd behaviour. As the leaders, so the followers; as the shepherds, so the sheep. If those who lead a nation are at best greedy and at worst corrupt, then you are unlikely to find better behaviour amongst the population.

The second is this. Having said that leadership is critical, it is one of the great strengths of Protestantism or biblical Christianity that it creates an individual morality and in so doing provides something of a defence against corruption from above. My understanding of the Protestant view of humanity is that every single one of us stands as individuals before a knowing God. I'm not terribly enthused by the old phrase that used to be embroidered on wall-hangings, ‘Thou God, seest me’, but it's undeniable that to have individuals perceiving themselves as personally accountable before God has had an astonishingly benevolent effect on society. Protestantism proves to be a great and potent bulwark against widespread corruption. There is a fascinating organisation called Transparency International which provides lists of the least and most corrupt countries. On the table of perceived corruption the least corrupt countries are overwhelmingly the Protestant states of northern Europe and their former overseas colonies. One of the biggest challenges facing atheism is how, in the absence of a supervising deity, you are going to prevent antisocial behaviour. It seems that if we remove God we must replace him with the CCTV and trial by press.

The third reflection is that this, above all, needs to be a truth that we take on as individuals. Human nature being what it is we are all tempted to be corrupt in some shape or form. Corruption is subtle, insidious and progressive. It starts small but soon grows. We need to resolve personally to make sure that we stop the rot as quickly as possible. And if we are in leadership we need to take more care, not less, to be honest.

Have a good week