The only way is ethics

(Photo: Unsplash/Nick Kane)

Ethics are once again front-page news. Last week former Downing Street ethics adviser Lord Geidt commented that his decision to quit his job was prompted by the prime minister's willingness to apparently countenance the deliberate breaching of international law.

As if it was not shocking enough that the ethics adviser had resigned, the matter was compounded when he wrote a second letter on Saturday (the first, released on Thursday, having been his resignation letter) to clarify the reasons for his resignation.

In case there was any doubt over the matter, Geidt (who had been in post since April 2021) said that he had resigned because he was not ready to go along with, what he considered, the government's readiness to break its international obligations.

It seems clear that Geidt was concerned that those defending the PM had fixed on the issue of Geidt's ethical disagreement with the government's plans to maintain UK tariffs on Chinese steel (in a possible contravention of World Trade Organisation rules), as if this was the only thing that had disturbed him.

The second letter made it clear that the matter went much wider than that. The issue of the WTO rules was, he explained, 'simply one example of what might yet constitute deliberate breaches by the United Kingdom of its obligations under international law, given the government's widely publicised openness to this.' In short, it was not just about steel tariffs. Rather, his concerns had 'far wider scope.'

This is the second adviser with a brief concerning ministerial standards to resign in two years. Geidt's predecessor in the post resigned in 2020 in protest at Johnson's support for a minister who was found to have broken the ministerial code of conduct. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde's famous pithy comment: 'To lose one ethics adviser may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.' And lack of care regarding honesty and ethical behaviour is exactly the charge being levelled against the current prime minister and some of those around him.

Prime Minister Johnson's suggestion that he may abolish the role of independent adviser, and replace Geidt with a committee has not exactly calmed concerns. It has left many with the disconcerting image of the nation's leader kicking the whole matter into the long grass. Ethics and moral behaviour, it sometimes feels, are a rather irritating distraction to holders of high office in the UK at present.

Does it matter?

The short answer is: yes! Our ethical framework is what defines our moral character and our position on key issues; and we use it to both evaluate our own actions and the actions of others.

Once it becomes an optional extra, or we regard the breaking of rules or dishonesty as collateral damage that we are prepared to accept in order to achieve our goals, then we have embarked on a very slippery slope indeed.

One is reminded of the memorable scene in the 2003 film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. The captured heroine Elizabeth (played by Keira Knightley) reminds the pirate captain of his obligation to free her according to the pirate code, to which the dastardly captain replies: 'The code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner!' And off they sail, with her imprisoned on the pirate ship – in contravention of the 'code'.

It's amusing in a Hollywood film – especially when we know that Elizabeth will eventually be freed from the clutches of the pirates. It's less amusing when similar attitudes seem to define aspects of government conduct and the mood music of the politics in a nation.

What is alarming is the way it seems to have become acceptable to break the rules oneself, while still claiming adherence to a national and international rules-based order. That is why unilaterally breaking treaty obligations matters. That is why honesty matters (another accusation that has been levelled at the PM). Breaking rules and contravening ethical standards can become a habit. And habits make a lifestyle. This applies to individuals and to nations.

If a leader break rules, lies, or obfuscates when it suits them, it has a corrosive effect on the system of government and the moral tone of a nation. The same is true when leaders brazen it out when caught behaving wrongly or inappropriately. When doing this, they calculate that the system and the public will grow weary of pursuing the matter before they do.

All around the globe we see challenges to the international rules-based order. Those governments who unilaterally break international rules and treaties – as with those who seem to regard personal ethics as irritating constraints – encourage others to adopt the same attitudes. What we do to others can rapidly decide what they will do to us. It is contagious.

This is an ethical issue, because both personal and national actions require moral and ethical evaluation. Ethics matter. As Christians, this expectation should be an integral part of our DNA. Yet, we too can be attracted by the siren voices that say: there are bigger issues to attend to; the ends justify the means; personal behaviour can be separated from a public position; breaking rules and laws is acceptable if it is in our personal or (alleged) national 'interest'.

The problem of the 'Cyrus Factor'

A few years ago, I co-wrote a book called Trump and the Puritans, which sought to explore the deep cultural roots of the extraordinary solid support for Donald Trump among US evangelicals. Matters of his personal honesty, morality, integrity, and treatment of others – which were well known and in the public domain – seemed incapable of denting the solidity of this support. And, given the propensity of many within (what is often called) the US evangelical right to keep faith with the Trumpesque narrative of the 'stolen election' and the January 6 Capitol attack being viewed as the actions of patriots, it looks like that outlook will be impacting on US politics for some time yet.

However, the thing that really puzzled me to begin with, was the way that fellow Christians could learn to live with a head of government who frequently (in the view of many) overstepped moral boundaries. In defence of that position, what surfaced again and again was reference to what we termed the 'Cyrus Factor'. This referred to the king of Persia described in the Old Testament as an instrument of God.

The 'Cyrus Factor' describes a phenomenon whereby God might choose to use an imperfect person, to accomplish a divinely ordained task. US evangelicals explicitly made this connection to Cyrus to justify their support for a man whose actions, many felt (including many evangelicals), so often deviated from Christian behavioural standards.

In theory, this sounds fine as a starting point, for none of our leaders are perfect. But only up to a point. For, where this outlook can lead and what we can get used to, is alarming. One by one, ethical standards can be jettisoned in order to achieve a narrowly defined set of goals. And, while certain goals may be achieved, something profound is degraded along the way – the moral tone of a nation.

After a while, the collateral damage that exponents of the 'Cyrus Factor' can learn to live with can be enormous. This has yet to fully play out in the US. But the danger is not confined to there. It is a wake-up call to us all, as we ponder the importance of both personal and national morality and ethical behaviour.

Ethics matter

One of the things that many people admire about Queen Elizabeth II is her morally upright character and her sense of duty. Over the Platinum Jubilee weekend, I preached on the subject of 'righteous government' as revealed in Psalm 77. Phrases found there such as 'May he [the ruler] judge your people in righteousness,' provide 'afflicted ones with justice,' 'In his days may the righteous flourish,' reminded me that good rule is based on fair judgement, respect for legality, and the intention and resolve to embody morally defensible principles in law and government. In short, good government is moral government: it seeks to define what is right and encourages it in others.

The statement that the ruler should 'be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth,' reminds us that the effects of good government should be wholesome, enlightening, promoting the flourishing of all. In a democracy – where we choose our government – this is the standard to which we should hold power to account.

These patterns of behaviour are not just the preserve of monarchs, prime ministers, and presidents. They are the model of right living for us all, and the way by which we can create an ethically robust and fair society. We certainly cannot just leave it to our rulers to make such a community. However, it is a reminder that they set the tone (or not) for the nation.

Whatever one feels about the specifics of 'Party gate', keeping to international obligations, or accusations regarding the personal performance of the current prime minister, it is clear that ethics (and the maintenance of public moral standards) must be at the heart of the conversation regarding our character as a national community.

We may not always agree over the detail, but the general matter seems indisputable. To misquote the title of a British reality TV series based in Brentwood: 'The Only Way Is Ethics.'

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As the author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio news exploring the interaction of faith and politics; appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA; and recently has been interviewed regarding the war in Ukraine, including its religious dimensions. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He has just completed Apocalyptic Politics (2022 forthcoming), which examines apocalyptic beliefs driving political radicalization across global cultures.