[“We’re turning”, surely Mathew Parris means “the Government is turning” but can’t quite say it – Owl]
There’s one passage I’ve never forgotten in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons, about the martyrdom of Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, Sir Thomas More. More confronts his future son-in-law, Will Roper, who has suggested he’d “cut down every law in England to get after the Devil”.
“Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? . . . D’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”
There’s something in the wind today, something poisonous; and though it’s hard to put a finger on, I think it matters. We seem to have entered an era of popular hostility to accepted and familiar institutions. Our leaders wish not to preserve but to destroy. This is dangerous.
“Disruption” has become the mantra. “Change” and “reform” are thought good in themselves. Apple carts must be upset, established rules and structures of governance “challenged”, trusted brands trashed. There’s a fine line between usefully critical vigilance over institutions we cherish, and a habit of scorn towards the organisations and systems that time has shaped and which, over time, have shaped us. I fear we’re crossing that line.
Take Roper’s frustration with being tripped up by the law as he chases the Devil. A case can be made for trimming back legal aid, or resisting the advance of the Supreme Court and judicial review as brakes on the exuberance of politicians. But if we don’t start from the massive respect for the rule of law that (though she was often impatient) Margaret Thatcher always showed, then we risk disaster. Few can have missed the dog-whistles of Conservative politicians all but condemning judges as enemies of the people.
Yes, Minister was Thatcher’s favourite TV satire. She found the Sir Humphreys of the Whitehall mandarinate maddening, as would any prime minister restless for action. But there was also deference: a clear understanding that Westminster and Whitehall are great and permanent estates. I don’t hear that respect today, as politicians and their media claque routinely refer to the civil service as some kind of fifth column to be subdued, broken.
I detect a similarly threatening attitude to the BBC. God knows the corporation can infuriate but when we’re cross, it should be because we love and feel proud of a corporation that’s a model to the whole world’s media.
The same is true of the fabric of our planning laws and procedures. Labour’s 1947 Town and Country Planning Act laid the foundations for the way we shape our urban and rural landscapes, and I return from driving across the Continent with a renewed sense of what Britain has achieved. Of course reviews and reform are needed but voices in government today almost hint that all planning constraint is regrettable. I know from living in a national park that constraint can be life-enhancing.
Then there’s the constitution. Our Union faces appalling strains already, and to talk as if the casual loss of Scotland or Northern Ireland would be just a bit of collateral damage in the Brexit wars is horrifying. At the other end of the scale are institutions outside government but which government should see as part of our national life. British Airways was bound to take a hit from the pandemic but are we just going to shrug and let it go? The National Trust has been badly shaken by outside attack.
I must not blame politicians alone. I could include newspaper columnists. We love tilting at things. But the critics of our institutions ought to be terriers yapping at the heels of lumbering giants. Often it now feels as though the giants have fallen and it is the jugular for which mastiffs are aiming. Likewise the Black Lives Matter movement should aim to correct and critique, not destroy, and should never forget what a great, free and civilised country we live in: here, and in the United States too. The national motto of the Republic of Colombia is Libertad y Orden — Liberty, but Order too. At its heart must stand institutions, procedures, structures and — yes — bureaucracy. These should not be dirty words.
I’ve mentioned the confusion, bordering on self-dislike, in private and public institutions. Some of this must be traceable to social media. In the past complaints were stopped at the door. There were filters. Now unvarnished harangues skip the post box and the PA and are delivered straight into the chief executive’s hand. In my experience, people at the top are unprofessionally neuralgic about complaints that come to them direct, forgetting that silence from most may mean most are content. Chief executives’ phones, like ours, make the professional personal. By letting so much coalesce in one device, we have stripped back barriers that gave pause for thought, or let tempers cool, or took away the private edge. The mob isn’t at the chief executive’s door. It’s just in his pocket. Public-facing executives, in national institutions and private-sector corporations alike, take fright and panic.
Great newspapers — institutions too — are not immune to this confidence-sapping virus. Some risk ancient reputations in the search for online clicks, as has the BBC news website. Dispensing with editorial judgment in pursuit of mere traffic betrays an institution’s failure of confidence in us, its customers, whom in a less jittery age it thought it knew. Media companies lose their nerve, deferring to what the data says, wrongly, about us. Collapse in internal self-belief is as much a cause of shakiness in our institutions as an external attack.
I’m far from saying that reformist assaults upon our institutions haven’t forever been with us, or shouldn’t be. We will always rail against committees, protocol and fustiness, the stick-in-the-muds and bells-and-whistles of venerable institutions. This is healthy. But if a balance is to be struck between critical vigilance and a near-anarchic destructiveness, then there needs to be pushback. The party of which I was a member used to provide it. It was called the Conservative Party. We knew the value of dragging our feet. Today, I almost feel the Tories are on the side of the wreckers.
There’s a war on. The pandemic threatens. Our economy staggers. Unemployment rises. The whole international order is under siege from the Putins, Xis and Trumps of this world. Not disruption but protection, not upheaval but steadiness, not the sweeping aside but continuity: this should be the call: the call of the known, the tried and tested, the familiar. Conservatives, of all people, should hear it.