A lesson on political morality in Westminster Abbey

A lesson on political morality in Westminster Abbey


The Westminster Abbey Institute hosts two seasons of clamouringly popular lectures a year, one in spring and the other in autumn. This year’s proceedings opened with a series focusing on Integrity in public service. A subject more pertinent given recent events perhaps than it has been for some time.

Charged with choosing the themes and gathering the high profile speakers, Director of Westminster Abbey Institute Claire Foster-Gilbert is determined that Westminster Abbey offers what it can to the other residents of Parliament Square. With the Palace of Westminster to the south, the judiciary to the north and Whitehall to the east, Westminster Abbey, backed by 1000 years of Christian tradition, has taken it upon itself to tend to the moral health of the public servants that it sits among, asking them to ponder the morality of their nation-defining choices.

The lectures, which are open to the public but designed for public servants, take place within the humbling walls of Westminster Abbey itself and I was lucky enough to attend one of these thought-provoking events. Clicking down the candlelit halls of the deserted temple, the mind wonders at the legendary moments that these walls have witnessed during the millennium that they have stood sentinel.

Directed by immaculately dressed ushers in long coats of red and black, you emerge into the Lady Chapel at the very end of the cavernous building; a masterpiece of medieval architecture built at the expense of Henry VII and described by the Tudor historian John Leland as “the wonder of the entire world”.

Standing by the altar, behind which Henry VII himself is laid to rest alongside his final queen Elizabeth of York, are the hosts of the evening who are presented to the attendees by Claire Foster-Gilbert. Chair for the evening is the Rt Hon Jack Straw and delivering the lecture Serving the Public: Mission Impossible? is Reverend Jane Sinclair, Rector of Westminster Abbey’s St Margaret’s Church.

Before handing over to Reverend Sinclair, Straw addresses the central question to the audience inviting particularly those who work in public service to reflect on “how we ensure that we do serve the public, but also that the public believe that we are serving them rather than simply serving ourselves, which is often the suspicion”.

Taking centre stage, Reverend Sinclair embarks on an interrogation of the idea of public service, its realisation and challenges.

National v Local

Unlike most industries that have the luxury of choosing the section of society for which they provide their services, our attention is focused on the nationwide institutions charged with serving the public as a whole. Reverend Sinclair points to Parliament, the judiciary and the NHS, all of which are doomed to suffer the difficulties that come with providing a one-size-fits-all solution to an infinitely diverse audience.

Parliament is given the power to serve the public through its “democratic credentials”. Elected MPs then have “the responsibility of ensuring that the local concerns of their constituency are adequately represented within the larger national concerns of Parliament as a whole and that national priorities are properly represented back at their constituencies.”

The trade-off between acting locally and nationally is one that confronts all public service institutions including Reverend Sinclair’s own Church of England that she admits displays a strong presence at a parish level, but rarely shows any kind of national coherence in policy.

“The NHS is similarly challenged; how shall it provide fair access to the best quality of healthcare across the whole of the UK bearing in mind the limited resources available and the ever growing expectations of the population?”

If we are not prepared to pay for the healthcare service that we want, Reverend Sinclair asks, “who is to make the decisions about where resources should be focused and on what grounds are decisions to be made?” which leads on to whether priority should be given to the most vulnerable and “who should decide who they are and on what grounds?”

Power plays

The importance of any public policy for citizens centres on “the consequences of its content to them as individuals” and the content of public policy in the UK is a “combination of ideological and ethical values, compromise, and the self-interest of policy makers”, meaning that “the interests of the general public, or of a section of the general public can sometimes take second place to the power play of policy makers”.

However, Reverend Sinclair warns that “when public policy is seen to be hijacked by a particular interest group or is seen to be unfair or unjust there will inevitably be trouble, challenges in the courts, vilification in the press and at worst riots on the streets”.

“It’s important that those who form and implement public policy have a deep understanding of how we as individuals conduct our lives and how we ought to behave as humans. Public policy needs to be properly informed on these issues and priorities, not simply formed to suit economic or party political needs and aspirations.”

“There will be differences in opinion between members of the general public about moral and ethical dimensions of our lives, but this should be the subject of debate and engagement,” says Reverend Sinclair.

Public engagement & democratic innovation

The final problem raised by Reverend Sinclair, is low public participation in policymaking or “democratic engagement”, the increase of which would, not only improve the public trust in policy makers, but also allow them to address a wider range of political concerns and to make better informed decisions regarding those concerns.

Reverend Sinclair alludes to a common “public disillusionment with institutions of advanced industrial democracies” like ours. This can be seen from the “gradual decline” in electoral turnout voting in general and local elections and from opinion polls that indicate “increasingly low levels of trust in politicians”.

“The Brexit vote shows that large parts of the population feel alienated from the process”, according to Reverend Sinclair, proving it is essential to “open up new forms of political participation to hear the voices of the politically marginalized” for the wellbeing of our democratic system.

“A healthy democracy requires democratic innovations to engage more of the public to address failings in policy and to tend to all sections of society, re-building public trust in policy-making institutions through transparency”, but these innovations “must allow meaningful contributions so that citizens feel it is worth voicing their opinion”.

Thankfully Reverend Sinclair concludes by offering the attendant public servants three drivers that must be in place for successful policy development and democratic innovation, the lack of which corrode the democratic system:

“Trust, between political decision makers and the electorate and between citizens themselves, including accountability; integrity, in that choices are made for the greater good of the whole and not out of self interest; and hope, a belief by the general public and those that serve it, that the creating of new policies and systems will bear fruit in the future.”

Taking leave of the congregation, I head back out into the night with a renewed appreciation for the infinitely difficult task faced by public servants, and a resolution to up my engagement in local politic; it sounds like they need all the help they can get.

For more information visit http://www.westminster-abbey.org/institute


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