The Nolan Principles of Public Life are routinely flouted
“Ethics? Down the A12, mate, and if you get to Ipswich you’ve gone too far.” It’s an old joke, but right now one which is both apposite and bitter. Our body politic is undergoing a serious ethical crisis, one which may not be confined to the government but certainly takes its lead from them. A prime minister who repeatedly lies and obfuscates, a chancellor who thinks his wife’s advantageous tax status is not worth declaring, a parliament so riddled with aggressive sexism that a now-former MP thought it acceptable to watch pornography in the chamber itself, while several members are being investigated for alleged sexual harassment… and this is just the start of the list.
It needn’t be like this, it shouldn’t be like this and it mustn’t be like this. Almost 30 years ago John Major, rocked by the cash-for-questions affair and what that said about Tory sleaze, tasked Michael Nolan, a former judge recently elevated to the Lords, with chairing a Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL). Among other recommendations, the committee came up with seven principles by which public servants of all types should abide: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
The choice of seven was unlikely to have been wholly accidental. When it comes to listing human qualities and setting out standards of behaviour seven is the number, certainly in Western culture. Christianity refers to seven corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead) and seven spiritual ones (instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, admonishing the sinners, patiently bearing those who wrong us, forgiving offences, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead).
There are seven cardinal virtues (faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude) and, of course, seven deadly sins (pride, lust, avarice, gluttony, anger, sloth and envy). In 1995, the year that the Nolan principles were published, the movie SE7EN saw Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as detectives searching for a serial killer who murdered his victims according to the deadly sins. Perhaps Freeman and Pitt could team up for a London-based sequel in which they hunt a vigilante offing ministers who have breached the principles, and which would be directed by Christopher Nolan (no relation).
And seven is the number of social sins enumerated by Mahatma Gandhi: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, and – most pertinently here – politics without principle.
Allegra Stratton, Johnson’s erstwhile press secretary, once insisted that “the Prime Minister does follow the Nolan principles when conducting himself in public life.” This is demonstrably untrue. Johnson has been in post less than three years, and in that time he and his administration have fallen foul of all seven principles.
Selflessness. Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
Johnson’s attempts to prorogue Parliament in 2019 were found by the Supreme Court to have been unlawful on the grounds of “frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature” – in this instance, particularly with regard to proper debate and oversight of the government’s proposed Brexit agreement.
Integrity. Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
“Unethical, foolish, possibly illegal.” This was Dominic Cummings’ verdict on the Downing Street refurbishment controversy, and even taking into account Cummings’ animosity towards his former boss and his own role in breaking this story, it is hard to disagree with his assessment. The refurbishment was partly funded by Lord Brownlow, a Tory party donor, to the tune of more than £100,000: funding that Johnson did not disclose as he should have done under regulations specifically put in place to minimise the possibility of donors calling in favours or exerting political influence.
Objectivity. Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
Partygate (see “openness”) may garner most headlines, but the awarding of covid-related contracts worth more than £1bn to Conservative party donors is arguably a much more serious breach of basic ethics. The government defended the decisions on the twin grounds that this was an emergency and that the contractors would have won the tenders anyway even with an open process: but, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
Accountability. Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
In Johnson’s own eyes his defence of Owen Paterson, who had breached paid advocacy rules by lobbying for two companies which paid him annual retainers, could have been construed as commendable loyalty to a staunch ally. But the Prime Minister’s attempt to delay Paterson’s likely suspension from parliament by setting up a new disciplinary committee was such a naked attempt to shield Paterson from accountability that many Conservative MPs flatly refused to vote for it.
Openness. Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
Like many of Johnson’s controversies, Partygate breaches several of the Nolan principles: openness just happens to be among the most obvious. The clandestine suitcases full of booze, the repeated dissembling on the part of pretty much everyone involved, the clear influence brought to bear on the Metropolitan Police to ensure that no further investigations would be made public until after the local elections: there is precious little transparency in any of this, but a lot of information being withheld.
Honesty. Holders of public office should be truthful.
Where to start with this one? In the interests of keeping it purely within the timeline of Johnson’s premiership, rather than the many examples of his dishonesty before he achieved the highest office, how about his refusal to declare who paid for his holiday to Mustique over Christmas 2019? (Carphone Warehouse co-founder David Ross, as it turned out.)
Leadership. Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.
The examples above, and many others, make this point almost laughably redundant when it comes to Johnson. He actively undermines and robustly undercuts the principles, and encourages rather than challenges poor behaviour – not least because he is the source of so much of it.
Just as the seven cardinal virtues are designed to balance out the seven deadly sins, so too can one consider a set of Johnson principles to offset the Nolan ones. With apologies to St Francis of Assisi (and to Margaret Thatcher, who borrowed the prayer upon her election as Prime Minister in 1979): where there is selflessness, let us have self-interest; where there is integrity, let us have venality; where there is objectivity, let us have cronyism; where there is accountability, let us have unaccountability; where there is openness, let us have secrecy; where there is honesty, let us have dishonesty; and where there is leadership, let us have irresponsibility.
Professor Leighton Andrews of the University of Cardiff needed only five words – “the Nolan era is over” – to sum up this state of affairs. “Ministers can perform badly but not be sacked. They can mislead Parliament but escape punishment. Cabinet and other ministers can breach collective responsibility with impunity. Details of Cabinet meetings and indeed Cabinet minutes can be leaked without any sanction. Ministers can undermine civil servants without consequence to themselves.”
Dominic Grieve, attorney-general during David Cameron’s premiership and widely regarded as one of the most personally decent men in the Commons – even his opponents have often remarked on his integrity and likeability – said that “it is hard not to conclude that Johnson’s misbehaviour is in a class of its own. It is also infectious. Ministers, even with personal qualms, are compelled to bend with the wind to keep their jobs. Others echo their leader and are untroubled that government contracts might have become tainted by personal or political connections, or whether there might not be a conflict of interest in having a non-executive director of your department as your mistress.”
“Infectious” is a carefully chosen and wholly accurate adjective. Fishes rot from the head: employees take their lead from the boss, and if that boss doesn’t seem bothered about certain things, even basic standards of probity, then neither will many of those employees. Partygate is a perfect case in point. Those parties took place because the culture from top down encouraged people to think there was nothing wrong with them. It is almost impossible to imagine those parties, at least on such a large and repeated scale, taking place under any of Johnson’s most recent predecessors. Theresa May and Gordon Brown would not have stood for such lax clubbability: Tony Blair and David Cameron would have been instantly aware of the atrocious optics.
Defenders of the government’s behaviour point to the fact that in most cases no law has been broken, and that even when it has (such as the fixed penalty notices given to Johnson and Rishi Sunak for those illegal parties) it is only to the tune of minor civil offences on a par with a parking ticket. But this is not the point. The law is a minimum standard of behaviour, not a maximum and infallible ethical benchmark. Indeed, a lawyer friend of mine is fond of posing the following two questions. First, think of the worst thing you have ever done. Second, was it illegal? The vast majority answer no to the second question: indeed, it is many years since he has had a “yes”. Conflating ethics and legality is intellectually lazy and morally reductive.
Breaches of the Nolan principles have both direct and indirect effects on public behaviour. Cummings himself is an example of direct effect: when he drove first to Durham during lockdown and then to Barnard Castle to “test his eyesight”, surveys showed that a greater proportion of the public was emboldened to break lockdown rules themselves.
More generally, an erosion of trust in politicians risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, where only the mendacious and second-rate will want a career in politics, where public abuse of elected officials becomes ever more marked, and where those officials tacitly decide that they may as well get what they can out of the job in exchange for that abuse and/or they’re turfed from office. A year after her husband left the White House, Michelle Obama said that she had “no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that. I continue to be put off by the nastiness: the tribal segregation of red and blue, this idea that we’re supposed to choose one side and stick to it, unable to listen and compromise, or sometimes even to be civil. I do believe that at its best, politics can be a means for positive change, but this arena is just not for me.” And soon we find ourselves in the territory, metaphorically at least, of the tragedy of the commons, where rather than pool resources together for the greater good we each take what we can get and retreat to our homes and tribes with our booty and beliefs, Gollum-style.
Sir Keir Starmer, for one, recognises the danger of this. “I shouldn’t have to pledge to honour these principles,” he has said, “but, sadly, I feel I do. It isn’t that the Prime Minister thinks the rules don’t apply. He absolutely knows that they do. His strategy is to devalue the rules so they don’t matter to anyone anymore. So that politics becomes contaminated. Cynicism and alienation replace confidence and trust. So that the taunt ‘politicians are just in it for themselves’ becomes accepted wisdom. It is a strategy to sow disillusion, to convince people that things can’t get better: government can’t improve people’s lives, progress isn’t possible because politics doesn’t work. But I’m not going to play the Prime Minister’s game. I simply refuse to accept that Britain can’t be governed better than this.”
We love and demand intrigue, rivalries, plots and scandal, for our political system is designed to be adversarial
He’s right. Of course Britain can be governed better than this. The concept that every politician is a waste of space is not only cynical almost to the point of nihilism, it is also demonstrably untrue. In very real and obvious ways MPs represent us, they represent the institutions which bind our society, and they represent our hopes, fears and efforts to make that society better. The House of Commons is full of decent, hard-working and principled men and women, many of whom remain unknown to the public at large and often to their own constituents too. MPs who take time to listen to their constituents and campaign hard on local issues are not the kind of MPs who usually make the headlines: there is no drama in what they do, and the popular and media narrative around politics is unendingly one of just that drama: politics is showbiz for ugly people, after all.
We love and demand intrigue, rivalries, plots and scandal, for our political system is designed from the ground up to be adversarial. Rival parties sit across from each other in the chamber rather than in the horseshoe configuration used in many other parliaments across the world. First past the post mitigates against coalition government, even though several western European countries are entirely used to coalitions and in general find them workable.
And the qualities needed to be elected are not necessarily the qualities needed to govern. As the old adage goes: campaign in poetry, govern in prose. Campaigning is emotional and requires charisma, charm, the ability to project a sense of authority and purpose, the easy soundbite pledging simple solutions to complex problems: in short, the ability and inclination to tell people what they want to hear. Governing is rational and requires attention to detail, compromise, negotiation, resilience, and the ability and inclination to be told what you might not want to hear.
Johnson’s propensity for chaos is in some ways merely taking all this to its natural limits. For a short time it can be entertaining, even for those who are not fans, but after a while – and for many people a short while at that – it becomes enervating and tedious. We all have friends like that, and we all know how and why to keep our distance from them. I cannot be the only one to have caught sight of an identikit grey-suited Benelux leader over the years and thought how refreshingly boring they looked. Much of politics is such people in a lot of grey rooms working on a lot of achingly tedious documents. It’s endless compromise. It’s not sexy or exciting. But it sure beats an endless whirlwind whose sound and fury signifies next to nothing.
One of the Nolan committee’s original conclusions was that “people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie.” The cynic, or perhaps the realist – the two become increasingly hard to distinguish when public ethics are in decline – would replace the phrase “are not always as clear as they should be” with “choose not to be as clear as they should be.”
The entire point about Nolan was that if you need to impose strict sets of rules, laws and sanctions then the battle is largely lost already. In a properly functioning system of decent people, it should be enough that they instinctively and collectively know the right thing to do without needing to be asked, forced or shamed into doing it. It doesn’t matter whether this is tax arrangements, lockdown parties, expensive wallpaper or corrupt pandemic contracts. The principle is the same: that the first thought should not be “what can I get away with?” but “what is the morally correct course?” A person who thinks the first without the second is the purest example of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Jonathan Evans, the current chair of the CSPL, has said that “good conduct is just as much about organisational culture as it is about formal rules and structures. Building and maintaining a strong ethical culture requires constant vigilance. Formal procedures have a role to play, but in the end it is individuals’ consciences that matter. These principles are not a rulebook. They are a guide to institutional administration and personal conduct and are given a hard edge when they inform law, policy, procedure, and codes of conduct.”
All non-binding principles rely on peer pressure, in the most positive sense. Professional sports teams, at least the successful ones, are good at this: the All Blacks’ “no dickheads” policy, the way that Liverpool press high and relentlessly for each other, the mythology around the “baggy green” that has inspired so many Australian cricketers to give their best to their country. But professional sports teams are largely homogenous in terms of personality type, and they have defined goals which can be measured in concrete terms (winning). Society at large is exponentially more diffuse, and for many people it is all they can do to survive, let alone thrive.
Your mileage may vary on the extent to which the UK is endemically and systematically corrupt, but even the most Panglossian observer would surely concede that there has over the past decades been a large degree of ethical lassitude, a slow slide away from high standards which of course risks becoming ever steeper and quicker the longer and further it goes, with every infraction reinforcing the ones that have come before and paving the way for those that come in its wake. We have got to the stage where it’s no longer about any one incident. It’s the gradual erosion, the piecemeal shifting of what’s seen as OK. It’s Akshata Murthy, it’s Paterson, it’s Lulu Lytle, it’s Barnard Castle, it’s untendered PPE contracts. It’s an Overton window constantly on the move. It’s death by a thousand cuts, and each one of those cuts paves the way for the next one.
You see it on smaller scales and even larger ones too: the emotionally abusive man who incrementally whittles away his partner’s self-esteem, the reports of atrocities from Ukraine to which in our helplessness we become gradually inured. The comparison is not in the gravity of the offences, of course, but in the patterns as they play out. And in those patterns one thing remains constant: that the standard we walk past is the standard we accept. Nolan said at the time that “unless corrective measures are promptly taken, there is a danger that anxiety and suspicion will give way to disillusion and growing cynicism.” More than quarter of a century on, little – too little, much too little – has changed.
The Nolan principles are actually a pretty good set of criteria for us all to try and abide by
So how do we alter this? It is worth noting here that the Nolan principles apply not just to elected officials, national and local alike, but to other public sector workers such as civil servants, police officers, health workers, teachers and so on. But to require all these people to automatically hold themselves to higher standards of behaviour is to do two things, both of them damaging to the social consensus.
The first is that by setting those people apart we risk absolving everyone else of the need to behave well. We should all aspire to behave like that, whether or not our position in society demands it. Levelling in instances like this is only worthwhile when it involves levelling up rather than down. And there is a lot of levelling up to be done. Our society is one in which people think it’s acceptable to harass public officials while they’re doing their jobs, to abuse total strangers online and in real life because they don’t share their politics, to hound people from their jobs and destroy their careers for daring to stand up to whichever shrill entitlement is this week’s special flavour.
The second is that to a very real degree we are all part of public life: we are all part of social networks which cross lines of friendship, geography and work, and so long as the ties that bind are stronger than the forces pulling us apart then the concept of society itself remains essentially workable. In this respect, the Nolan principles are actually a pretty good set of criteria for us all to try and abide by. They do not come freighted with the moral judgment of religious sins and virtues: they are, rather, simple humanist qualities. Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership: are these not the things which make up not just the people we like and admire, but also the person we would ourselves like to be?
More than that, in fact, for at heart they all rely on the same thing, the concept of the collective. They all involve an individual’s actions not just as those actions relate to the individual but to other people too. In this regard, it is revealing that one of the most quoted assessments of Johnson came from Martin Hammond, his housemaster at Eton: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” You can hark back to John Donne and no man being an island: you can look towards Africa and the concept of ubuntu, which can be translated several different ways including the simple and rhythmical “a person is a person because of other people.” They all end up at the same place, and that is each other. We need to demand more of our public servants, but by the same token we need to demand more of ourselves too.