In his recent book, How To Make a Vaccine: An essential guide for COVID-19 & Beyond, Dr. John Rhodes celebrates the 300th anniversary of the first well-recorded inoculation against smallpox in Britain in August 1721. At the time smallpox was killing up to 400,000 people in Europe every year including a grandchild of King George I.
The science of vaccination has made extraordinary strides. Our thinking about ethics only some modest positive developments. Vaccination opened up a set of important questions about the common good, choice and individual responsibility, misinformation, and latterly, moral indifference.
The story begins in Constantinople with the wife of the British Ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Sultan. Once a beauty, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was disfigured by smallpox but survived to become an advocate of inoculation, or as she called it ‘ingrafting’, a practice performed on the Sultan’s wives. Lady Montagu’s son was successfully inoculated against smallpox in 1718. On her return to London a grand promotional event for the inoculation of her daughter was organised with royal court physicians including the King’s physician, Sir Hans Sloane, in attendance.
The Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, well read in the science of the day, (later Queen as wife of George II), instigated an experiment with the aim of protecting her own children. Six prisoners due to be hanged in Newgate, were offered their lives and freedom if they volunteered as guinea-pigs to test the safety and effectiveness of inoculation, also called variolation. With celebrity endorsement from London’s good and great this became a high profile event which Fellows of the Royal Society and some 25 members of the College of Physicians came to observe. In charge was the Scottish physician, Charles Maitland, a former embassy physician in Constantinople where he had learned the technique.
What followed was not for the faint-hearted.
Maitland made an incision into an arm and a leg of each convict and then inserted material from the pustules of an infected person. He had to repeat the procedure as not enough local reaction could be detected. One of the volunteers received the material up the nose. A 19-year old girl who had been inoculated was later exposed to a child smallpox victim and proved to be immune. All six were given a royal pardon and walked free a month later. Public opinion about inoculation was divided and, as it is today, politicised: the Whigs at court justifying the experiment on utilitarian grounds and the Tories opposing it on grounds that physicians should not play God. The anti-vaxx movement in Britain had begun.
Doctors in Asia had been playing God and evoking opposition for many years. Rhodes quotes the Chinese emperor, K’ang-hsi in the late 1600s. “The method of inoculation having been brought to light during my reign, I had it used upon you, my sons and daughters….In the beginning when I had it tested on one or two people, some older person taxed me with extravagance, and spoke very strongly against inoculation. The courage which I summoned up to insist on its practice has saved the lives and health of millions of men”.
The next big step, from inoculation to vaccination, came courtesy of a Gloucestershire milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, who caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom. It’s the better known story of two rural physicians, Edward Jenner and John Fewster, proving that pathogens administered in a weakened form could protect against a more virulent form. Result: millions of lives saved. Blossom’s hide hangs on the library wall of St. George’s Medical School a bovine equivalent of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed hide displayed in University College London.
But there is a lot more to Rhodes informative book than some captivating medical history. He is at his most instructive teasing out the complexities of the human immune system, a little army of interactive defenders against foreign intrusion each with its own task: surveillance cells patrolling, helper T-cells, killer T-cells, B-cells which have daughter cells that produce the antibodies we’ve all heard about, regulatory T-cells that shut down the immune response once the pathogen is defeated, memory B-cells that, I imagine, must trigger the amplified response from a booster dose of vaccine, and memory T-cells. I wish the word awesome hadn’t been voided of all meaning. The immune system is simply awesome. Though it can and does make mistakes.
How To Make a Vaccine is an important genre of science popularisation. It is clearly written but asks a lot of a reader without any biological or scientific background. Not because it is aimed primarily at a scientific audience but because it is narrating and explaining the intricate complexity of the immune system. There were well over two hundred different COVID vaccines at different stages of development as Rhodes was writing. They fall into eight distinctive categories depending on what part of the virus biochemistry is targeted and how: inactivated or attenuated forms of the virus, its DNA or messenger RNA or protein configuration for example. This is good news as variant mutations are unlikely to counter the effectiveness of all available vaccine categories.
Opposition to protective measures against viruses and bacteria has a long history. Andrew Wakefield’s spurious claim in 1998 that the combined vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella, MMR, was linked to autism was the direct antecedent to current resistance. The history indicates that a minority of the public will always be prone to making bad decisions about how best to look after their – and others’ - children or their own health. And this will inevitably create public health problems.
The Pope has made it unequivocally clear being vaccinated is a moral obligation. But Vatican guidance for Catholics in 2020 was pre-occupied by the question of the origin of cell lines that have contributed to vaccine production – human foetal tissue from two sources in the 1960s - despite vaccination being of paramount concern for the common good in this pandemic. This was at the expense of common good arguments for getting jabbed. The guidance concludes that the remoteness of the original ‘evil act’, abortion, removes any complicity from those seeking protection for themselves, family and others today. Indeed vaccination ‘may be a moral obligation’ if there are no other effective ways of stopping infection. Those who refuse in conscience must scrupulously find other ways of avoiding transmission of the virus. Scientists should obtain their cell lines without ending the development of a human life. Something tells me this is not going to sway militant anti-vaxxers.
How to Make a Vaccine is well worth the effort. The scientific progress it presents is in many ways comforting. It puts flesh on the dry bones of ‘following the science’. Anti-vaxxers, especially those addicted to conspiracy theories, should ask themselves how the medical profession, with their Hippocratic Oath, have conspired to fool the world for the last three hundred years – and yet managed to save so many lives. And then dip into this paperback. They won’t even open it, of course. The persistence of opposition to vaccination based on nothing to do with conscience is sad, obstinate and dangerous.
See TheArticle 30/07/2021
In Britain the gap between our actual political horizons and the need for radical change is deep and wide. It is that gap and not the word radical that ought to inspire fear. ‘Radical’ means getting to the roots of a problem not twisting, turning and tweaking as things get predictably worse. The fear comes from sloppy use of the word as a synonym for extremism used to shut down all debate.
Compared to secular leaders, religious leaders have the advantage of a traditionally accepted way of highlighting the perils of business as usual and of expounding radical approaches. The religious code word for this form of discourse is ‘prophetic’. It is a word that implies not just authority for seeing into the future but more importantly divine approval of the prophet’s broad-brush account of what is wrong and ethical prescriptions for changing direction and putting things right.
Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream, published last year as a user-friendly and personalised synopsis of his lengthy and more formal encyclical Fratelli Tutti, is an excellent example of the prophetic mode. But his little book has proved to be much more than that. The pandemic provided a context in which prophetic words and ideas coming from an admired religious leader, speaking informally and intimately at a time of acute uncertainty and unprecedented upheaval, would be heard and considered. The secular Press carried respectful reviews. Waves of appreciative discussion washed through Catholic social media. There was none of the usual ‘the Church shouldn’t meddle in politics’ though the book described what politics should be about but wasn’t.
The subtitle of Let us Dream is The Path to a Better Future. Not an entirely accurate description of content. Popes do not prescribe in practical detail how to get from A to B. They provide counsel on where to find and how to read the signposts. The religious code for this is ‘reading the signs of the times’, or ‘discernment’ for short. Choosing pathways, turning principles and plans into practice is the role of politicians, civil servants, policy-oriented academics and experts in various disciplines. It should be achieved in close collaboration with civil society.
The remarkable feature of Francis’ brand of prophetic writing is that it dovetails with others who start off from where he of necessity as a religious leader has to end. For example, the American political scientist Robert Putnam and the social entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s How We Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it again and Jon Cruddas MP’s The Dignity of Labour go into the detail of what it will take to make absolutely vital changes. Tellingly the distinctly secular political and cultural weekly, New Statesman, asked the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams to review both these books.
The gap between the reality of our politics here in UK and the radical change imagined by Pope Francis seems unbridgeable. Let us Dream promotes change emerging from the margins and led by Popular Movements. “I call them ‘social poets’. In mobilising for change, in their search for dignity”, he wrote, “I see a source of moral energy, a reserve of civic passion, capable of revitalizing our democracy and reorienting the economy”. Not to be confused with populism which “denies the proper participation of those who belong to the people, allowing a particular group to appoint itself the true interpreter of popular feeling”. It is an understandable view given the Pope is Argentinian and the history of Latin America.
We get a glimpse of possibilities from the Black Lives Matter movement. But at present putting together a powerful, sustainable coalition for radical change in a British context is a daunting prospect. Progressive politics traditionally, culturally, aim at incremental changes. Finding an umbrella mobilising theme would be a beginning. Perhaps a Campaign to Defend our Democracy. There is something similar breaking ground in South Africa. In Britain It would require pulling together scattered, legal, human rights, environmental and civic initiatives.
Britain faces a particular difficulty in coming to terms with two overwhelming aspects of present reality. Firstly, we cannot and should not return to the injustice, anger and division of the old normal. But it is an inevitable reaction to the pandemic to want a return to normality. Secondly, we are in denial about our history. We want a brave and glorious past, a compensation for recent decline. “History is what was, not what we want it to have been”, Pope Francis says in Let us Dream “and when we throw an ideological blanket over it, we make it so much harder to see what in our present needs to change in order to move to a better future”.
Afforded a large Parliamentary majority, those who have most control over the past, present and future today, the Johnson government, demonstrate the paradox of a British form of authoritarianism undermining the British structure of governance hard won in the past . Less accountability, more control by the few for the few, more greed and self-interest, appear as the change they have in mind. Governing in this manner requires negligible concern for truth and thus negligible purchase on reality. Its vision of a better future is refracted through the short-term good of the Party. An obvious symptom of this authoritarianism is that serious challenge, within and without the inner circle of the Conservative Party, has been, and will be, punished: by expulsions, resignations/sacking. The old-fashioned alternative to coercion is persuasion.
But at the same time, focussed on a future of devastating Climate Change, a significant and growing consensus is emerging about the urgency of radical economic transformation and the social and political reforms that must accompany it. In Germany the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock, might even take the Chancellorship. We are seeing a growing consensus that unites religious and secular thinkers. Laudato Si, Francis’ 2015 encyclical, grounding the Christian Green movement in the Bible and Revelation and calling for ‘swift and united action’ provides a supportive religious commentary on the report of the UN’s 2009 Sustainable Development Commission. We need to go back to the 1960s when the Catholic emphasis on human dignity met the human rights movement for such a confluence of thinking.
Two other events give hope that popular movements are able to gain momentum and bring about change. There was the encouraging verdict of a jury in Minneapolis that at least one black life, George Floyd’s, mattered enough to convict a police officer of murder. It was not just a matter of video cameras telling the story, the four officers filmed savagely beating Rodney King in 1992 were acquitted by a jury. Something had changed.
Then there was the remarkable response to the Super-League plans of twelve top football clubs. In UK demonstrations outside clubs that this should not stand several core values were voiced by the British football-loving public. Prominent was that despite a history of spectacular commercialisation football as a sport generated local community. A few multi-millionaire owners of the celebrity clubs would not be allowed to destroy this treasured expression of togetherness (it helped that for the six British clubs involved all these individuals were foreigners). Closely linked to this was that lesser, smaller clubs would be cut out from the financial benefits of the status quo in which skill and effort is rewarded with advancement, cups and big money. The giant-killer, Leicester City’s spectacular 2016-2017 season, was used as the exemplar of football as the terrain of soccer meritocracy with the status quo providing redistribution of the money flowing through the system to the smaller clubs.
You might not agree with the values deployed to justify the public outrage – see Michael Sandel on meritocracy. But suddenly, community, sharing and the hopes of the less well-endowed were being brought into play in the public domain. Are these the morals of the British heart? If so, the question that comes to mind is why don’t these values, held by the majority, or at least some of these explicitly held values, come into play in the run-up to elections?
True, the Pope’s dream is as radical as it gets at a personal and social level. Yet he is not a voice crying in the wilderness. But if the fate of Martin Luther King’s dream is anything to go by, the virtue of patience recommended by Pope Francis in Let Us Dream, will be indispensable. Meanwhile as the disembodied voice warns those waiting expectantly on the London Underground platform: ‘Mind the Gap’.
Sadly there have been many avoidable deaths in this pandemic. Now we hear that Freedom is coming. While retaining his signature incompetence, Boris Johnson’s contribution to the COVID crisis has shifted from lethally misguided to incomprehensible. Some airport manual on leadership appears to have convinced him that he must keep national spirits up with heady optimism and the sort of slogans that defeated the Remainers. His remarkable ability to assert the exact opposite of how he actually proceeds, ‘data not dates’, has given us Freedom Day.
Who can be against Freedom in these dark days of authoritarian governments? Perhaps Johnson cribbed it from Freedom Day, April 27th, the annual South African public holiday to celebrate their first non-racial elections, but I doubt it. On 19 July it won’t be freedom for the hundreds of thousands of immune-suppressed people who have much reduced protection from vaccines and will have to restrict their movements if others go mask-free. It won’t be freedom for unvaccinated young people who find they have long-COVID after a relatively mild initial attack of the virus. And it won’t be freedom for the many, afraid to challenge cavalier unmasked travellers on crowded buses and trains, who would be driven off public transport but for the intervention of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan and other Labour mayors. Nor for those fearful to enter badly ventilated stores and restaurants. It will be freedom for repeated arguments, drunken brawls and unnecessary conflict.
Johnson’s grandiose language, evoking struggles for liberty, as he promises to end compulsory mask-wearing in England does not match the public’s views. They have accepted some compulsion in matters of public health since the 2006 Health Act which “makes it illegal to smoke in all public enclosed or substantially enclosed area and workplaces. The ban includes smoking on vehicles which serve the public and / or are used for work purposes”. Provisions were subsequently tightened and expanded to protect children’s health. Local Councils were made responsible for enforcement but compliance was high without direct compulsion. They public agreed that protecting the health of others was both sensible and right.
The divergence between public opinion and libertarian rhetoric has become so obvious we are into the familiar Johnson phase of backtracking and mixed messaging accompanied by a barrage of cautionary advice from Ministers. After all, one function of law is to settle conflicts and especially to avoid violent forms of dispute settlement such as might be caused by disagreements in public about wearing masks. Mr. Rees-Mogg would perhaps like to return to dueling, maybe in Wetherspoons, but the hope is we will move forward to a less-divided society as the pandemic comes under control.
For the government right now its first problem is that it has repeatedly trumpeted 19 July as the day when any and all restrictions will be lifted. Anything less could prove to be the Johnson betrayal that finally alerted the public to the disaster for the UK that he is. The second problem is that, perhaps not inadvertently, the masks issue has become part of the culture wars fostered by Johnson and is now arousing strong feelings of personal identity. Particularly, it seems, among young men who are notoriously reluctant to wear masks on London’s Underground. Coming from Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, the explanation that the purpose of removing legal restrictions is so we can ‘exercise a degree of personality responsibility and judgement’ beggars belief.
No-one in government, though, seems to want to take masks out of the sacred Tory domain of choice. The very word “choice” is bandied about as if it were a transcendental value in itself irrespective of the true value of what you choose. It has entered the core of Western ideological extremism. It is difficult to say what libertarianism actually is in the minds of the Tory back benches but their current political position puts liberty front and centre. Let’s just say that for them it could mean one or all of the following: free markets, an unbalanced individualism, a belief in seriously reducing State intervention in society, and a blind spot when it comes to social ethics, those obligations we have towards others. We hear little about the ethical decisions and values consonant with a decent society when talking about the mask issue.
Quite simply, wearing a mask in this pandemic is an action which protects the health and wellbeing of others who will be wearing a mask to protect yours. It is not, as government persists in talking about it, primarily a choice between individual protection and ‘getting back to normal’. Nor has the requirement to wear a mask any direct impact on economic success as the Asian countries have demonstrated despite government implications to the contrary. No one in their right mind believes that moral considerations, concern for others, will be a priority for everyone and that is why the public believes there should be some compulsion until the virus is brought under control. Public Health is primarily a matter for the State’s attention. Challenging the ‘mask-free’ (those not exempt for health reasons) in COVID-friendly environments is not the job of tired workers who have no option but to travel to their jobs on public transport.
True freedom requires that we acknowledge that we are essentially social beings formed in dependent communitarian relationships, reliant on each other, not individualist monads with limitless choices. This insight, increasingly missing from modern Britain, is retained in the world religions. The libertarian view of freedom, like Boris Johnson himself, is a seductive counterfeit. Its consequences will soon be appearing as the government’s refusal to take responsibility for a key preventative measure to limit the spread of COVID become apparent.
In all this current blather about Freedom the question that should be asked, and discussed, but won’t be, is “What is Freedom for?” It happens to be a chapter heading in The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of tradition in an Age of Chaos, a much acclaimed book by Sohrab Ahmani, an Iranian-born journalist and convert to Catholicism who confesses to being ‘a public Catholic’ and ‘interrogator of modern certainties’. He adopts this role by asking twelve questions, one per chapter, each linked in an eclectic selection to different thinkers from around the world. “The past”, he writes, “can lend us a hand amid our modern misery, and we can retrace a path out of the current chaos and confusion”. It is an exercise in historical humility. I recommend one chapter a day on the beach – that is if you can manage to get to one.
See TheArticle 16/07/2021
Now is a critical time for South Africa, a major test of its institutions and leaders. Former President Jacob Zuma (79) is finally behind bars. The Constitutional Court, the country’s Supreme Court, will hear his appeal against a sentence of 15 months imprisonment for contempt of court. By refusing to testify Zuma, the very stereotype of leaders in Africa, defied a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture (systemic corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state's decision-making processes for financial gain). Then, at the end of next week, it is Mandela Day when South Africa celebrates its exemplary and heroic first leader. The contrast between the two men couldn’t be greater.
Leaders operate within political and social contexts not necessarily of their own making. No-one doubts multi-millionaire President Cyril Ramaphosa’s skills as negotiator. He is an outstanding former trades union leader whose role was pivotal in negotiations with the apartheid regime. But he has inherited a daunting level of corruption in his Party, the African National Congress (ANC).
South Africa’s constitution includes important institutions intended as protections for democracy and guarantor of citizens’ rights. The office of Public Protector, reporting to Parliament, is an independent body designed to monitor government maladministration and corruption. In March 2016, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, set in motion an investigation into allegations against Zuma. It was widely believed that three businessmen brothers, the Gupta family, in cahoots with Zuma had been selling top ministerial appointments in exchange for highly favorable business deals and contracts. The investigation itself was the result of a civil complaints procedure initiated by Father Stanislaus Muyebe, the vicar-general of the Dominican Order in southern Africa, and a second complaint by the main Opposition Party, the Democratic Alliance. The final lengthy report of the investigation was worrying enough for the Constitutional Court to implement Madonsela’s recommendation to set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry. Zuma was finally forced to resign in 2018 after nine years in office.
I only met Zuma once some forty years go. He suddenly appeared from behind a bush in the then Salisbury capital of Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe. I was with Rev. Frank Chikane, the future secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), then and now a prominent and courageous advocate of human rights and democracy. Frank was meeting his brother, an active member of the external ANC. At the time, the ANC camps in Angola and Zambia had been infiltrated by apartheid agents and in an atmosphere of paranoia scores of alleged ‘sell-outs’ had been executed. Zuma was head of ANC Intelligence. Even in that fleeting encounter he struck me as a frightening and dangerous man.
In 1994, not long after he stepped down as President of Zambia I accompanied the late Kenneth Kaunda (KK) monitoring South Africa’s first fully free elections. His recent death reminded me of so many unanswered questions about the leaders of the African liberation movements. How had they managed the transition from political activist or guerilla fighter to holder of high office in an independent State? Why in the case of Kaunda, a pious Christian and a thoroughly decent man, was the one-party State a natural default position? In the case of Zimbabwe, did its first President, Robert Mugabe, impart a sense of entitlement to wealth through power the result of suffering, persecution and prolonged imprisonment under collapsing colonial or settler rule? A kind of reward?
The heady atmosphere of optimism and idealism, the euphoric crowds voting during the 1994 elections, are long gone. Even then there were serious threats. KK was assigned to KwaZulu-Natal where Inkatha, the Zulu tribal movement, was shaping up for a war with the ANC. Violence that could derail the process of the elections. KK had a retinue of two: a Zambian bodyguard impeccably turned out in military uniform and myself as bag-carrier and general factotum. We were lucky. The Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi backed off after intensive lobbying . Instead of carrying machetes and guns the young men we met in our first small town were having a wonderful time talking into walkie-talkies and acting as if they were a Presidential protection unit. Sadly intercommunal violence was to pick up after the elections.
KK stopped at Pietermaritzburg for a night-time vigil in an Anglican church. We had a row of pews to ourselves with the bodyguard seated two places away on the left of Kaunda and myself on his right. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Denis Hurley, the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, were to give short homilies. During a silent period for prayer out of the corner of my eye I saw a stocky white man barreling down the left aisle. He stopped at the end of our row. He looked disturbed. It didn’t look good. As he pushed along the row towards us it looked bad. To my amazement the bodyguard let him pass, sit down next to KK and start sobbing. KK handed over his signature handkerchief and held the weeping man’s hand. The man blurted out that he had come to ask forgiveness. He had been on a South African commando raid into Zambia which had killed several people. Kaunda said a few gentle words. Somehow both the bodyguard and Kaunda had known this white intruder was intent on confession, truth and reconciliation, not assassination. It was a mysterious moment but in retrospect caught something significant both about South Africa in 1994 and Kaunda’s personality and leadership.
KK and my friend, the SACC’s Rev. Frank Chikane, owed much to a Christian humanism that allowed them to move seamlessly between the political and the religious. Chikane survived neurotoxin poisoning by the apartheid security police and became in 1999 Director-General in Thabo Mbeki’s presidential office. In July 2010, Frank courageously publicised his insider blow-by-blow account of the de facto coup by which Zuma forced Mbeki’s resignation and came to power as President. Chikane now has a leading role in the nationwide Defend Our Democracy Movement, a coalition of NGOs, religious bodies and lawyers.
Chikane is both consistent and persistent. His position is simple. South Africa’s future had fallen into the hands of politicians who looted the country and enriched themselves at the expense of the people. Now is the time for the people to mobilize ‘as the last line of defense’, Chikane’s words, to protect South Africa’s democracy. Against this background of a popular movement, and Zuma in prison despite support in the ANC, the role of the judiciary takes on a particular significance. Meanwhile Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation and enormous self-sacrifice for his country remains a political ideal.
Younger readers may think of distant South Africa and the 1990s themselves as ‘another country’. But there are lessons for Britain’s contemporary political problems. We need some of that early post-apartheid political creativity, the infectious hope that things can change. We need a concerted movement that draws different parts of society together to support our institutions and defend our democracy. And we need Church leaders with the courage and confidence to recognize our problems as both ethical and political who will speak truth to power and act accordingly.
See TheArticle 08/07/2021
Are we sufficiently concerned about the anger, division, and outbreaks of thuggish and violent behaviour we see right across the country? Are our contemporary divisions destroying trust, cohesion and civic values everywhere and not just in post-BREXIT Northern Ireland?
The temptation is to highlight contemporary bad news and imagine trends, signs of a dystopian present giving rise to a more dystopian future despite our residual nineteenth century belief in Progress and Development. Taking things to their logical conclusion as a way of reasoning has obvious pitfalls; things, thankfully, rarely get to any firm conclusion least of all logically.
On the one hand, we might be experiencing what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin called Jetztzeit, a here and now marked by a major upheaval, an explosion in the dismal continuum of recent British history. On the other, we may be looking at more of the same. We forget too easily past crises, riots and social division, and eventually all may calm down and society return to as normal as we can manage.
An allied question: is there a relationship between the current stresses on civil society and the weakening of proper governance of public affairs, compliance with laws and rules and the accountability of those holding political power? Or expressed more simply, what kind of corrosive damage does a corrupt government cause civil society and civility? Or is a corrupt government just propped up by an un-civil society? COVID has opened up numerous opportunities for gaming the system. British people are in the habit of using public services whilst avoiding paying for them through taxation. Requests for and payments of cash-in-hand are common, and at the better off end there is sophisticated tax evasion by the rich. Maybe, as the Anglo-Irish political scientist, Benedict Anderson says: “We have met the enemy and it is us”.
A lot hangs on what we mean by corruption. In the 1970s, I lived and worked in Nigeria. Embezzlement, kick-backs, fraud and bribery in government office were normal. What of Nigerian civil society? Expatriate academics from communist Poland found those little financial inducements quite natural and handled the university bureaucracy with practised skills. Taking them as her example my wife got the university to install an air-conditioner but without paying off anyone. And she got a round of applause from senior administrative staff who had been following her antics with great amusement. Nigeria encouraged you to believe in a trickle-down theory of corruption. Enormously stoical, resilient and humorous, Nigerian civil society aspired to clean governance but was resigned to the opposite.
In Britain using public office for private gain, or personal gain in political careers, is less common, less acknowledged and less recognised as harmful. It takes place on the poorly patrolled border between the unlawful and the criminal, rank cronyism and ‘chumocracy’. Note how choice of words can soften the impact of much the same conduct. Accusations of conflict of interest don’t get the public onto the streets, though avoiding such conflicts is a fundamental principle of good decision-making and therefore the conduct of public life. The public condemned Matt Hancock and his adviser Gina Coladangelo for their videoed clinch for ignoring COVID rules, and this was the reason he gave for his resignation. No mention of any conflict of interest in his adviser’s appointment as a Non-Executive Director in the Department of Health and Social Care. Ministers still ‘forget’ to disclose relationships pertinent to lucrative government contracts. And donors to the governing Party found their way onto the 2020 government VIP procurement list. Much of this is illuminated by the work of civil society organisations such as the Good Law Project.
In developing countries where a single breadwinner may be supporting many poor relations, the pressures at every level on those with any access to money and power are enormous and the temptations to corrupt practice great. They are much amplified if you can count on not getting caught. Whether the corrupt are likely to be exposed and punished is the touchstone of how bad things will get. It has little to do with inherent differences in moral sentiments between nationalities. Corruption gets a lot worse when a government is accustomed to ‘getting away with it’ and avoiding scrutiny. Nigerians in my experience hate the prevailing corruption but, given the behaviour of their own politicians, are at a loss how to curtail it.
Do we disapprove of the corruption of the Johnson clique enough to do something about it? And if we don’t– taking things to their logical conclusion - are we heading for a dysfunctional polity like Nigeria? Good heavens ‘No’, you will say ‘nothing logical about that and indeed preposterous’. We have Parliament. We have the Common Law. We have an effective and learned judiciary able to subject government’s conduct to judicial review and we have the European Commission and Convention on Human Rights. We have parliamentary select committees. We have the BBC and a free Press. And we should treasure them all. But the long term resilience and effectiveness of all these depend on voters too many of whom seem to feel this is not their concern or even that ‘politicians are all the same’.
It would be good to think Matt Hancock’s resignation is a turning point. But it isn’t. Adultery is neither unlawful nor criminal nor as disapproved of as it once was. Public wrath, transmitted via Tory MPs’ fears into Tory Whips’ political muscle, was directed at the flagrant demonstration that “there’s one rule for them and another rule for us”. The suspected Minister of Health’s cronyism was not the raw meat the tiger Press fed on. And its readers seem yet to make the connection between dishonest government cronyism and their own wellbeing.
Corruption could get a lot worse. Government under Boris Johnson remains determined to get away with it and avoid scrutiny. “I think he honestly believes it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception”, his Eton teacher wrote in Johnson’s April 1982 school report, “one who should be free of the network of obligations which bind everyone else”. A Prime Minister who does not understand how a rule-based society works or the distinction between private and public interest is a threat to the whole of society. As the old proverb says: “A fish rots from the head down”.
See TheArticle 02/07/2021