Leading Article: Public morality is what matters

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The Independent Online
POLITICS is a corrupting profession. It gives ministers power, and power is notoriously corrupting, even in small doses. Power is umbilically linked to patronage, meaning jobs and honours for friends and supporters. One of its key components is knowledge, much of which - far too much in Britain - must remain confidential, thus obliging ministers to be less than candid. Power fosters the belief that the end justifies the means, and convinces its practitioners that they know best what is in the nation's interests. The state, as the Scott inquiry shows, is essentially amoral.

Exercised collectively, as in Cabinet government, power obliges ministers to defend policies they may privately consider to be folly (as Lord Lawson subsequently admitted in his memoirs, apropos the poll tax). Power and its perks cut off those who enjoy them from the reality of most people's daily struggle. In this country, the hothouse, self-referring world of Westminster greatly aggravates that isolation and the arrogance it engenders.

The Conservatives have been in power for 15 years. They have been thoroughly corrupted - and the public has rumbled them. A recent poll found that only 14 per cent of respondents felt Tory politicians were trustworthy. The Prime Minister's own standing has plumbed new depths. No post-war British government has been less well- placed to preach even a half-sentence of morality to the public; so nothing could be more richly deserved than the morass in which the sanctimonious moralising of some of its members, led by the Prime Minister, has now landed it.

The resulting spectacle is a blend of tragedy and farce. There have been causes enough for ministers to resign in the past 15 years, if Mr Major's cherished doctrine of personal responsibility had been applied to serious errors of policy and management. Yet now they are quitting for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the efficient, honest and conscientious execution of their ministerial functions.

The 'back to basics' message, cynically devised to unite the party and appease grass-roots constituency opinion at last autumn's Blackpool conference, has boomeranged. The explanation is simple: the Government itself should have been the original addressee. It is not for ministers to tell the people what traditional values Britons should observe, or by what standards they should live.

Such rhetoric may appeal to puritan party zealots, but it will strike most people as grossly presumptuous, given not just the tainted source but the Briton's healthy dislike of moral fervour. How much wiser the party's amateur moralists would have been to draw up a list of principles by which the Government itself should live.

High on the list of what sickens the average voter about the conduct of government - leaving aside the hypocrisy that lies at the heart of the present crisis - must be the ceaseless flow of evasions to which radio listeners are treated at breakfast time as ministers are questioned about the issues of the day. Honesty could begin there, with more serious attempts to answer the questions asked, a willingness occasionally to admit to ignorance and past error, even perhaps to recognise that the Opposition has got it right. Downright lies are rarer: when realpolitik required deception over government contacts with Sinn Fein, Ian Paisley was virtually alone in condemning the Government for lying.

The sense of responsibility that ministers so readily urge upon the public should begin at home. Norman Lamont ought to have resigned when his categoric assertions that sterling would remain in the ERM were undone on Black Wednesday. Someone, probably Kenneth Baker, should have resigned over the poll tax fiasco. John Patten - and there are few keener moralisers than he - should have resigned when his ineptitude and insensitivity turned the entire teaching profession against his reforms, several of which were subsequently reversed.

Probity might reasonably feature on any government's list of values. Properly applied, it would exclude the granting of important jobs, let alone honours, on the basis of loyalty or generosity to the Conservative cause. Yet, according to a Labour Party analysis, one in three of the 10,000 appointments made by ministers to non-governmental public bodies goes to an employee or director of a company that make donations to Tory party funds. Typical among those was Sir Robin Buchanan, whose mismanagement as chairman cost the Wessex Regional Health Authority several million pounds.

And where stands the probity of a government, five of whose ministers signed immunity certificates intended to prevent disclosure in court of evidence vital to the defence of three businessmen charged with illegally exporting arms to Iraq? One of those businessmen had risked his life spying for Britain in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Yet ministers seemed happy for him and his colleagues to risk a jail sentence rather than admit they had changed the rules governing exports.

Self-restraint is, like integrity, a virtue to be prized in public as in private life. Yet successive Conservative governments have greedily grabbed power from local authorities, thus helping to undermine those community values that Mr Major affects to prize so highly.

To emphasise that there is a distinction between public and private morality is not to deny that the two can overlap. There are certain standards of private behaviour and sexual morality that cannot be flouted by those who hold public office without the risk of retribution. Precisely where they lie will shift with the tides of public opinion. By no reasonable standards can a marriage undermined by adultery be considered incompatible with public service. It is because all attempts to draw such lines are so perilous that the Government should concentrate on putting its own house in order.