ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on why we need a Lord Michael Nolan, the first chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, now more than ever.
If I say the word ‘Nolan’, what comes to mind? The Anthony Nolan Trust maybe? For football fans it might be Kevin Nolan; for pop fans of a certain age the Nolan Sisters, a popular Irish band of my youth; then there is Stephen Nolan, the pugnacious Northern Ireland broadcaster.
But there is one Nolan above all who, although no longer with us, is highly relevant in these days of lies, gaslighting and the current government’s steady corrupting of our politics and so of our national life. That is Michael Nolan, Lord Nolan, the first chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, set up by John Major in 1994 in the wake of what was known as the cash for questions scandal. Hands up anyone who knows the name of the current head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life?
If I say it is Lord Evans, hands up who knows who that is? If I say Jonathan Evans? Heard of him? Fair enough, he was previously head of MI5, and a very good one, so keeping a low profile was part of his DNA. But now, perhaps a different approach is required? Nolan became a very well-known figure, yet I would suggest politics was a lot cleaner then that it is today. Hands up if anyone can name any of the current members of his committee? You’ve almost certainly heard of one of them, the Labour nominee, Margaret Beckett, one of my favourite politicians, with whom I have always had an excellent professional relationship, and a friendship too. Driven by the right things. Experienced. Wise. I am sure she will take any criticisms of the committee which follow in the right spirit.
The Tory MP on the committee is former attorney general Jeremy Wright. Lib Dem peer Lord Andrew Stunell makes up the political appointees. The chairman, and the four independent voices, are all appointed by the prime minister – not Boris Johnson; the current team took office under Theresa May; Evans, higher education expert Dame Shirley Pearce; media professional Monisha Shah; Young Epilepsy chair Jane Ramsey; and former Local Government Ombudsman Jane Martin.
Fair play on the diversity front – five women to two men. Work-rate, however, as measured by their website, not so impressive. Three blogposts and a press release since March. The most recent blogpost, by Dame Shirley Pearce, looked interesting on first glance, as it addressed the subject of ‘leadership in times of crisis.’ Anyone looking for a detailed analysis of Johnson’s leadership in the time of the current crisis, though, will be disappointed.
Hands up who knows any of the seven principles of public life, the so-called Nolan Principles, as set out in the committee’s remit? Even without knowing them you ought to be able to guess a few. Ask yourself, what kind of qualities should we expect of those we elect to lead us, those who they appoint to support them, (that’s you Mr Cummings) not to mention all who work in the civil service, local government, the police, the courts, the armed forces, schools and hospitals?
As you read the seven principles, perhaps have in mind Boris Johnson and his relationship with truth. His lying to the Queen, his lying to the country, his recent lies at Prime Minister’s Questions, averaging over one a week. Think of Johnson’s unexplained £15,000 holiday, the Russia Report, or of Robert Jenrick and Richard Desmond. Think of the civil servants ousted to make way for Vote Leave cronies taking on jobs for which they are not qualified, like the soon to be national security adviser David Frost. Think of Dominic Cummings and his flit to Durham. Of friends of Cummings and Michael Gove who appear to have become multi-millionaires on the back of non-tendered contracts. Have in mind the ministerial history of Priti Patel or Gavin Williamson. Have in mind any of the many lies told by ministers at the lectern of the Number 10 Covid briefings, or the lies told about Brexit.
Have in mind the oven-ready deal and how it squared with hundreds of millions now being spent on border checks we said we wouldn’t need. Here you go, dear reader, the seven principles which the committee whose job is to advise the prime minister on ethics insists should be the foundations of standards in public life.
Leadership (as in leading by example).
Just read them and weep, and rage, that every single one of them is breached every single day, not just by Johnson, but right through the government. No wonder so many civil servants, military leaders, judges, school heads and the like are in despair.
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Dame Shirley Pearce hinted at this in her blogpost. ‘It is obvious that what each of us does influences the behaviour of those around us – our friends, family and colleagues. Whilst the Nolan Principles apply to those holding public office or providing services to the public, this crisis demonstrates how the behaviour of members of the public can influence the well-being of us all. As citizens and members of society we have responsibilities to each other – and people’s sense of those wider responsibilities has been much in evidence, in volunteering, running food banks, observing lock down etc. Although not articulated, citizens do, it seems, implicitly acknowledge the value of the Principles – that they owe some degree of selflessness, that they ought to show some integrity, and that they are rightly held to account if they do not do as they are asked or required. That sense of civic responsibility connects the private individual to the Principles of Public Life.’
But then this. ‘High profile examples of failure to show leadership in the delivery of the Principles have been damaging.’ Had I still been a political journalist, I would have taken that as a pretty clear, critical comment on some of the incidents I mention above. I wonder how many journalists even saw it though. I’m afraid, Dame Shirley, that in this world of oven-ready deals, build, build, build and all the other three-word slogans designed to drown out real debate, you need to spell it out. If you’re saying Johnson’s lies, Jenrick’s dodgy dealings, Cummings’ lockdown breaches, and Hancock’s turd-polishing are undermining the Principles, call it out. Do not wait for political and public furore to erupt, but investigate these things proactively, and speak truth to power.
Memo to: the PM.
From: The Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Your failure to correct factual errors at PMQs violates the principles of honesty, openness and accountability. We are concerned that the Jenrick/Desmond affair may additionally be in violation of the principle of integrity. We worry that the highly political nature of government messaging on Covid is not consistent with the principles of honesty and objectivity. Nor, we fear, is your attempt to place Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence Committee. We feel that the Cummings episode, and some of your and his conduct since, frankly undermine all seven principles.
And we feel there has been all too little honesty, openness, integrity, selflessness, objectivity, accountability or leadership in the Brexit process, most recently the advice on health insurance, roaming charges, border posts, and a huge increase in red tape for business and travellers.
I now give you another leader and ask you to mark her and Johnson against the seven principles. Angela Merkel. I think we are looking at a 7-0 scoreline.
Merkel spoke in the European parliament recently ahead of the German presidency of the European Union. Now that the government has got Brexit done (sic) this was deemed no more newsworthy than all the other ‘foreign news’ that most of our media don’t cover unless it involves Brits trapped somewhere abroad, or Donald Trump saying or tweeting something outlandish.
She said this: ‘You cannot fight a pandemic with lies and misinformation, any more than you can fight it with hate. The limits of populism and the basic denial of truth are being laid bare. A democracy needs truth and transparency. That is what sets Europe apart, and that is what Germany will stand up for in our presidency.’
In others words… Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Putin… it is not a coincidence that you have ended up the worst handlers of Covid, because lies and populism don’t cut it.
Once Covid is, hopefully, history, we have to make sure the virus of populism is made history along with it. In several democracies of the world, populism is debasing and destroying standards in public life. Many MPs realise it, but are at a loss as to how to deal with it. The Committee on Standards in Public Life needs to help them.
We need proper scrutiny and accountability on standards in public life more than ever before; because they are being debased as never before.
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