Standards in public life – or the lack of them?

Above – from Juice Media in Australia lampooning the state of UK politics – have a watch of their video here, published in August 2022. (This is the NSFW version!)

Overhauling what we mean by public life needs to be part of the wider overhaul of our political, economic, democratic, and constitutional institutions, structures systems, and processes.

And there’s no time like the coronation of a new monarch in which to launch it.

“I didn’t know we had a committee for standards in public life! What is public life anyway? Is it like being on the tellybox?”

First of all, definitions. Public Life as a ‘thing’ in contemporary political discourse (i.e. what people in politics and the media talk about today) dates back to the scandals that engulfed John Major’s Government in the mid-1990s. It got to the stage where the then Prime Minister and MP for Huntingdon (because local news angle!!!) asked Lord Nolan to come up with a set of standards and chair a committee on such standards.

People who are in Public Life according to the committee are people who are covered by the definitions below:

  • those elected or appointed to public office, nationally or locally,
  • those appointed to work in the civil service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, Non Departmental Public Bodies, and in the health, education, social and care services, and
  • those in the private sector delivering public services.

…which is a lot of people. In the grand scheme of things, the higher up you are in an organisations hierarchy, the more responsibilities you have (for people, resources/money, and powers), and the more prominent the office you hold, the greater scrutiny you are likely to get.

At various times in my life I have been subject to the oversight of that committee – in particular my years in the civil service. They are subject to the seven principles which you can also read here.

“Honesty – Holders of public office should be truthful… …so why did the Tories make Boris their leader and thus the Prime Minister?!?!”

You tell me.

Furthermore, the issues of the former Prime Minister’s financial affairs is still rumbling on – this from earlier today (29 Jan 2023). The longer these headlines keep going, the greater the electoral backlash might be – and/or the general public might simply say: “Sod politics”. Former BBC reporter Jon Sopel, now free from the constraints along with Lewis Goodhall and Emily Maitlis, have been understandably outspoken about the very low standards in ministerial office in recent times.

GoD slams Tories

The former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell went on the radio to redirect the blame at where it lies – with ministers.

Yes, there are some big questions to ask of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case – which is what the Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs Select Committee is there for. And in return for the six figure salary, monthly scrutiny by that committee comes as part of the job. But let’s be clear: The Cabinet Secretary and his civil servants should never have been put in these positions in the first place. No civil servant should be.

This blogpost starts off with the scandals that were splashed all over the tabloids a generation ago, reminding us of a different era before zooming into the problems that are actually far greater, and are beyond the scale of individual institutions.

“Was there a good old day when politicians were noble, monarchs were wise and religious clerics were not involved in scandal?”

No. Turns out even the literal saints were up to naughty things.

And when it comes to sleaze, the 1990s were a strange ‘golden era of bad behaviour by splendid chaps’

In John Major’s administration, ministers and senior politicians fell like skittles.

Above – the Daily Mirror (from the British Newspaper Archiver here) amongst others going to town on the turbulent Tories of the mid-1990s – note the all-male line-up.

There is one thing to note in examining this era of history: socially-conservative institutions were far more influential than they are today.

This is reflected in the tone of the tabloids of the 1980s including content that today many of us would find as homophobic, and at a time in UK history where some of the offences of that era have since been removed from the statute books. There was also nothing the tabloids liked more than bringing down politicians who preached trust and loyalty while being anything but in their private lives. It got to the stage where the House of Commons authorities were reported to have barred certain individuals from the premises (Read it in the papers – must be true!) because too many MPs in the nearly all-male House of Commons could not control their emotions.

Above – The Mirror from the British Newspaper Archive 14 March 1989

It’s only when you browse multiple successive copies of the national tabloids of the day (eg The People in the British Newspaper Archive during the 1980s) that those of us too young to remember, or who were not alive at the time, can get a sense of what the atmosphere in public life was like.

What we are seeing today is in a different league though, isn’t it?

Well is it?

Take this by railway transport expert and author Christian Wolmar:

“The new and very thorough biography of Ernest Marples [Minister for Transport], The Shadow behind Beeching [Richard – the man who oversaw the massive cuts to the railway branch line network], which has just been published by Pen & Sword, is an interesting reminder of just how things change – and how they don’t.”

“Marples himself who, when appointed as Minister of Transport had large shareholding in the roadbuilding company Marples Ridgway and which he then passed on to his wife. The Beeching axe fell while simultaneously motorways and ring roads were being constructed around the country”

Christian Wolmar, 25 June 2022

Does it feel different to the more recent scandals regarding procurement?

Tory Chairman and ex-Chancellor sacked

I woke up this morning to find the Prime Minister had received the assessment from his newly-appointed ethics adviser. Which then makes me wonder whether the reckless disregard for civic codes and civic values in our institutions is finally coming back to haunt the Conservatives – in particular the now former Chairman of the party who got absolutely rinsed by the Prime Minister’s new ethics adviser.

“I consider that Mr Zahawi, in holding the high privilege of being a Minister of the Crown, has shown insufficient regard for the General Principles of the Ministerial Code and the requirements in particular, under the seven Principles of Public Life, to be honest, open and an exemplary leader through his own behaviour.

I want to commend Mr Zahawi for his willingness to assist with my inquiry. I also fully appreciate the pressures faced by Ministers as they address the complex issues of government and the difficulties they encounter in balancing the demands of their personal lives and their ministerial responsibilities.

These factors, however, cannot mitigate my overall judgement that Mr Zahawi’s conduct as a Minister has fallen below the high standards that, as Prime Minister, you rightly expect from those who serve in your government.”

Sir Laurie Magnus to the Prime Minister, 29 January 2023

It is the final sentence that is the most damning – with Sir Laurie Magnus (who penned those lines) being more than aware of the criticism he came under in accepting the post for a host of reasons. Clearly in this case it was such an open-and-shut case that it would have been impossible for him to have ‘whitewashed’ the case even if he wanted to – such a risk being that he’d have come out with his reputation even more shredded than that of the now-disgraced ex-minister. At the same time, it also gave the Prime Minister the Political cover he felt he needed to make the decision: Independent reviewer assess facts, made a very strong recommendation, recommendation followed – minister sacked.

“In the olden days, I expect all of the chaps would have gone to Chapel at public school and Oxbridge which would have given them the moral compass required for high public office!”

The town-gown history of Cambridge alone refutes this concept of each school and college having its own chapel as being the magical institution that stopped chaps from behaving badly. Here’s one of many examples from Cambridge. Furthermore, it’s possible to look through newspaper archives and court records to work out how many undergraduates were convicted by which college in Cambridge over the centuries. (Should anyone wish to undertake a study! The data is waiting to be collected!)

“Surely no one needs a certificate from school to tell them the difference between right and wrong though?”

I agree – and the risk of having such a tick-box inspection process ends up creating more problems than it solves – as illustrated by Punch from 1952 below, where the stereotype of the drive to improve standards by central government resulted in a multitude of inspectorates and inspectors that had to go about inspecting everything, creating a paperwork overload.

Above – ***May I see your certificate that shows you are complying with the regulations enforced by my ministry?***

You can see where some of the resentment between central government and local councils emerged from in the 20th Century!

This also reflects why things like the Register of MPs’ Interests and the public availability of it has not been enough to stop the erosion of public standards. One point of contention is that the Conservatives won’t agree to reform on party donations from businesses and wealthy people unless and until Labour agrees to reduce the amount of money it receives from trade unions. The other issue is what donors expect in return – and whether the time spent away on such lucrative work for some MPs (especially former ministers) is time that should be spent on constituency work. Boris Johnson registering over £1m for the past month alone.

“How should politics be funded then?”

The Electoral Commission reported on this in 2004 – have a read here

Its key findings were:

  • “We recommend that the national spending limit applying to Westminster general elections should be reviewed following the next general election with the aim of reducing the limit to £15m.
  • Alongside this, we recommend a significant increase in candidate spending limits to encourage more activity at the local level.
  • We recommend that a similar rebalancing of national and candidate spending limits should then take place for all other relevant elections.
  • We recommend that any increase in candidates’ expenditure limits should be accompanied by greater transparency, allowing opponents and electors to more easily review election expenses.”

Above – p6 from Electoral Commission (2004)

In the grand scheme of things, many of these could be rolled into ‘a Royal Commission of Commissions’ on overhauling politics in the UK. At least that way there could be some co-ordination and sequencing of which order the major issues are dealt with. The reason is that so many of the problems are interlinked. It is every so easy for reforms to be blocked by a vested interest saying ‘Item A cannot be resolved unless item B has been resolved first’. Party funding for instance. But then you cannot deal with the problem of ‘cash for access’ associated with corporate lobbying (for example sponsorship of party political events or evening receptions – I’ve been to some of them in my time) until you’ve dealt with the problem of how to fund political parties. And you can’t deal with how to maintain integrity of regulatory standards (such as in the building and construction sector) while you have got wealthy developer interests able to buy access to decision-makers and ministers lobbying for the loosening of regulations – one of the many scandals exposed by the Grenfell Inquiry.

This also links back to civic pride.

At no point during my time at school, college, or university do I recall anyone ever saying to me or those I was with anything that both welcomed us to the institution, set out what the values of that institution were from the top, and invited us to take individual *and* collective ownership of those values.

While I recall individual civil servants and trade unionists making the case during my civil service days, the ability to communicate the importance and value of theme was variable. Being a civil servant means something – it means something very, very important. That’s why we have a Civil Service Code. For trade unions, have a read of the TUC Statement Below.

“Our values guide us in all our work.

We stand for equality, fairness and justice, and for dignity and respect for all working people.

We believe in solidarity: that working people can achieve more acting together than they can do on their own.

And we are internationalists, acting with trade unionists around the world to promote working people’s interests.

Finally, on civic pride, I can’t recall an occasion where in my formative years (the 1990s) any local civic city-wide institution made me or my generation feel any sense of civic ownership and responsibility for the city I grew up in. By 1999 All I wanted to do was to leave. Permanently. In 2006 having boomeranged back after graduating from university in 2002, all I wanted to do was to leave. Again. Permanently. And now? I’m stuck here. Which is why I resolved to try and improve things given the lack of alternatives.

  • That lack of civic pride is reflected in the weakness of our local governmental institutions.
  • That lack of civic pride is reflected in the amount of collective wealth that private interests are able to extract from the commonweal of our city
  • That lack of civic pride is reflected in the chronic problems our city faces that never seem to get solved – ones that successive archived newspaper reports evidence.
  • That lack of civic pride is reflected in the solutions put forward by local government executives
  • That lack of civic pride is reflected in the poor quality buildings that too many developers construct – all too often in the face of local resistance

Above – it’s not just Cambridge that has issues with architecture and civic pride

Above – Blyth, and here in a letter about Salisbury.

A strong culture of civic pride along with with a competent and effective system of local government would, in principle act as a check against the power of large corporations and a check against under-performing or badly-behaving MPs. Part of the problem is the concept of ‘safe seats’ within our electoral system – something else that would need to be covered by the Commission of Commissions.

The act of establishing such a Commission would be a task-and-a-half for any government. Assuming the reports delivered high quality recommendations, the task of bringing them in would also be a monster of a task because of the strength and power of the multiple vested interests that would lose out.

Could it happen?


Just not in my lifetime.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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