We’re in a new era of political sleaze – with not even a baseline of human decency | Zoe Williams

We’re in a new era of political sleaze – with not even a baseline of human decency | Zoe Williams

The Guardian

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Asking whether Boris Johnson has breached public standards is like asking whether two pigeons trying to shag mid-air have violated public decency legislation

When everyone is talking about the Nolan principles for public life, you know you’re in a new era of sleaze. Nobody thinks about them much, otherwise: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It sounds like the elevator pitch for John Lewis. A friend was struck by the perfect mirror symmetry between Nolan and the seven deadly sins, so then I had to look those up as well. They’re actually not symmetrical at all. The opposite of the sins would be chastity, humility, generosity, abstemiousness, vigour and equanimity. You’re wondering why there are only six. It’s because generosity is the opposite of both envy and greed. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t want to tread on Christianity’s toes, least of all at Easter.

Michael Nolan didn’t have a lot to say about chastity or generosity or modesty or humility, I’m guessing because he assumed that the public would provide that firewall themselves. If a person was visibly greedy or wrathful or gluttonous, if they couldn’t handle government money without funnelling it through their friends, or have juniors at work without swearing at them, or had such poor impulse control that they would invite their girlfriend to their marital home for a cheesy pasta dinner, only to have run out of cheese, then they would never make it in public life in the first place. Standards for officials were a totally second-order affair, designed for the intricate moral dilemmas of duty versus ambition, openness versus discretion. They assumed a baseline of normal human decency. Asking whether Boris Johnson could have breached Nolan’s principles is like asking whether two pigeons trying to shag mid-air have violated public decency legislation. Maybe, technically. But they’re just pigeons, doing what pigeons do.

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