Friday 14 January 2022

Boris, Pelagius and me

I have never worked in Downing Street (and in fact have only been there once) but I spent over 30 years as a UK civil servant, and have an abiding interest in - and, it has to be said, a certain admiration for - the way government works in this country. I appreciate I may be in a small minority in regard to the latter disposition. But this accounts for my initial remarks below. What follows those is by way of reflection and commentary.

First, 10 Downing Street is no-one’s “house” or “home”. It is is part of the government department known as the Cabinet Office which has about 5000 staff. Perhaps 200 of these people could be said to work directly for the PM, in the extensive suite of offices which lie behind the famous facade. The majority of them are civil servants, employed by the Crown, and formally answerable for their conduct not to the PM or his party, but to a senior civil servant known elsewhere in government as a permanent secretary. The reasons for this very long-standing separation of responsibility are well-attested and clear; but they include the fact that it would be impossible for a PM to carry out his or her vast and onerous political responsibilities while simultaneously managing a government department. So while the PM has *political* responsibility for the activities of his office, he is in no sense responsible for the management of most of the staff who work there - and indeed cannot be. He is obliged to leave that to others appointed to that function. He naturally has a say in which civil servants work directly for him, particularly in the most senior roles, but he does not employ them. He cannot possibly know exactly what every member of staff is doing at a given moment. His job is political oversight and leadership, not staff management or administration.

The nuances of this arrangement do not appeal to the endlessly, pathetically reductive UK media which is keen to conjure the impression of a culture of possibly illegal activity taking place in the PM’s “house”, and even with his permission or even connivance, at a time when the rest of us were prohibited from engaging in anything similar (let alone in countless other more necessary or desirable activities). And they are in any case - even the more serious outlets - uninterested in the dry, unsensational details of how our system of government actually works.  But, like it or not (and I don’t very much) our media is a reflection of our society: we are as a people perhaps predisposed to glossing over boring - and perhaps mitigating - facts when we are offered the red meat of anger, indignation and censoriousness - particularly when the perceived offence is hypocrisy.

“It’s not the parties I object to; it’s the hypocrisy”. “It’s one rule for them and another for the rest of us”. Others have written extensively, movingly and sometimes wisely about why, especially in circumstances of urgent, sacrificial necessity, we should all be subject to the same restrictions. I agree with them. There is an essential communal aspect to a proper response to the emergency: no man is an island. (I am asthmatic and so notionally not required to wear a mask in the prescribed circumstances. But I do anyway, because I genuinely believe we are all in this together.)

But there is something, if not peculiarly then characteristically, British about the ferocity of our denunciation of perceived hypocrisy. I frankly don’t find this very attractive. There is a whiff of implicit self-righteousness, and even puritanism about it which makes me uncomfortable. Aha, (you may think) sounds like he’s got something to hide!  Well, you’d be right. I’ve got plenty of things to hide. The extent of my own sinfulness is hidden from all except God (and occasionally, and only ever partially, another priest). Among my many failings, ladies and gentlemen, is the fact that I am a hypocrite. I sometimes say things I don’t believe. I judge others for faults I myself possess, and I knowingly fail to live by laws and precepts which I cheerfully and unironically enjoin others to obey. For these offences alone, I deserve to have the book thrown at me. But …

When the late Lord Hailsham (a lawyer and a practising Anglican) was asked how he would defend himself on Judgement Day, he said he wouldn’t: “I will plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court.” Well, that’s my plan, too. I deserve punishment but will plead for mercy. For my faith teaches me that I am helpless to save myself: I depend entirely on the grace of God.

This understanding was explicitly rejected by the 4-5th century British monk Pelagius who believed that human beings have the free will to achieve perfection without divine grace - in other words, that we can save ourselves by our own efforts. Although condemned as heresy in 418, this belief persisted (and arguably still persists) and Pelagianism became known by some as “the British heresy”.

It seems to me that we have inherited something of this. Our readiness to denounce others for failing to live up to their own principles has its roots in a rejection of Original Sin and an implicit belief in self-salvation. As we point at and “call out” others, we do not pause to reflect on our own sinfulness, the fallen human nature we share with those we condemn, nor even a fleeting “there but for the grace of God”.

I don’t know what the inquiry into the Downing Street shenanigans will conclude. But I strongly doubt that anyone there was “laughing at us” as has been repeatedly suggested by the Government’s critics - whom, by the way, I don’t blame for exploiting this to the maximum. (I do blame the media, but I think most of them are literally incorrigible.) By the same token, I am not interested in excusing or exonerating anyone who has been at fault. I just reflect that if I had been working last spring at No 10 under the extreme pressure that they perennially do, and someone had suggested a glass or two of wine in the garden, I might well have said yes. There but for the grace of God.