Westminster Abbey was founded by Benedictine Monks in AD 960. The rule by which the monks lived and taught, is explained in a lecture given at Westminster Abbey Institute by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: “The Benedictine Rule ‘identifies Honesty, Peace and Accountability as critical to the health of any community”. By examining these key virtues, the Westminster Abbey Institute offers Public servants and private citizens a platform from which to examine and discuss these ideas within today’s political, religious and social climate.
Over time, the country’s leading public state institutions were drawn to Westminster Abbey and formed a new community working on behalf of the people and the State: The Houses of Parliament and its departments of State, Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace, the London District of the British Army and Headquarters of the Metropolitan Police are all positioned in or around Parliament Square and home to the public servants working on behalf of the private citizens. These are the foundation stones of power and politics in the UK.
Sadly, Politics, Power and Public servants have become words synonymous with corruption, dishonesty and moral cowardice. How often do we hear people say ‘all politicians are liars’ and the actions of those who hold positions of power called into question?
Westminster Abbey Institute was founded by Claire Foster-Gilbert (Director) and its raison d’etre, to address these questions and examine how to redress current public grievances. Since the Institute was launched in 2013, it has hosted a series of lectures and discussions on moral values in Public service. A number of familiar names including William Hague, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Nick Clegg, John Major, Sir Bernard Hogan Howe, Lord Saatchi and Matthew Parris have taken to the Abbey floor in previous years to explore ideas of Democracy, Integrity and Ethics. It is a forum where members of the Public services come together to reflect on moral values and choices, and explore how, as public servants, they might take the right moral course of action to achieve good, at a time when the values and choices appear to be increasingly diminished.
This Spring the fundamental topic under investigation is ‘Truth’: In the world of public service, trustworthiness, dependability, wise decision making and solid relationships all depend on truth. Is it in shorter supply than it used to be? How can it be recognized and where can it be reliably found? Is it justified for politicians to tell lies in order to do good, or does that lastingly undermine the public’s faith in political leadership? Is there such a thing as diplomatic truth?
When asked how Truth can be defined, Foster Gilbert’s starting point is Plato and the idea of ‘absolute truth’. Plato’s position is that we all have a concept in our mind of what is an absolute truth despite never having seen it. ‘There is such a thing as truth, there is such a thing as absolute truth’ explains Foster Gilbert. ‘The fact that it’s impossible, it seems, to express it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be as truthful as possible. Because, there are real dangers if we simply give up the idea that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and to something to which we should aspire. Without this we really end up in a place where we can’t trust each other anymore.’
So how can this analogy be applied to our Public servants and their attempts to restore our faith in their moral practices? Telling the ‘truth’ when one is a public servant is wrought with pitfalls. Foster Gilbert offer an example from one of the previous lectures; ‘Leading up to elections leaders will make extravagant manifesto promises.’ In 2016, Nick Clegg, who has invaluable hands on experience in treading the tricky path of politics, gave a practical example of what it is like to a politician in public service campaigning for the leadership of his party. Clegg, explained that if you are successful, 90% of what is done in office is to react to an event over which you have no control, 10% of time maybe given to the things that were promised during the campaign. We the voter know that 90% of the promises made during the campaign will not be fulfilled. So why doesn’t the political campaigner knock on the door and say that he or she can’t promise to deliver on everything but can work to deliver on some promises to the best of their abilities?
The answer Foster Gilbert suggests is that ‘we’, the electorate, don’t want our politicians to tell the truth, because what we want is the Messiah, we want our Public servants to make our dreams come true, and when they don’t we hate them.’ The reason for this, it could be argued, is because the general public do not want to be held accountable for making a wrong decision. We need only think about Brexit to see this that Foster Gilbert has an argument here. It is easier to blame our politicians and call them liars than to be accountable for the part we play in the democracy in which we live. Therefore, as much as this Spring’s lectures and debates are about exploring ‘moral truths’ they are also about encouraging a debate among public servants and private citizens alike, about responsibility and accountability within the community at large. Most importantly, finding ways to make society more ethically and morally robust in an age where it appears that the ‘truth’ and ‘trustworthiness’ have become seriously compromised.