In a recent essay, I recalled the lesson of the two monkeys on our childhood shoulders and the problem of good and evil with which the human psyche wrestles (SR 10 May
). I am not competent to enter the territory which Robin Downie explores so lucidly, but the issue of the behaviour of parliamentarians which I touched on does invite further comment. It has led me to re-read The Water Babies
in a search for Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. My grandmother, who read the book to me as a child, stressed the former, who was indeed herself a grandmotherly figure. The admonition, do as you would be done by
, stayed with me and does still seem a simple but sound guiding principle.
A child of Charles Kingsley's day (he wrote the book in 1863) and most British children for the next 100 years would probably have had rather harsh instruction at school on avoiding the seven deadly sins – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride – which had formed an important part of Christian teaching from its earliest years. There was certainly an emphasis on what the bad monkey whispered in our ears. But there were also seven virtues, that for some reason were less emphasised in our education – kindness, temperance, charity, chastity, humility, diligence and patience – derived from a 400CE poem by the Roman Aurelius Prudentius, in which these virtues did battle with the vices. The early Christians were putting their slant on the ethical teachings of the ancient Greeks.
Note the date of publication of The Water Babies
: 1863. Charles Darwin, whom Charles Kingsley knew and supported, had published The Origin of Species
in 1859. Kingsley was both a clergyman and a naturalist – indeed he had previously written a book on the biology of the seashore, Glaucus; Or The Wonders of the Shore
, published in 1852, in which he promoted Darwin's observations prior to their full publication. He was also a Cambridge professor of history and popular educator.
The Water Babies
is full of fantasy based on biological observations as well as some satire on the disputes on dogma of the time. It was a time of conflict between rational science and belief in biblical authority. Kingsley walked that tightrope skilfully, encouraging his readers to keep an open mind. His choice of characters with those curious names shows his humanity and understanding of children, even if his references to the classics and to such characters as the illustrator Thomas Bewick and the author Rabelais were aimed more at their parents.
It was in this spirit, of gentle promotion of the good rather than condemnation of the bad, that Lord Nolan must have operated when, in 1994 on John Major's initiative after cash-for-questions scandals, he was appointed chairman of the then new independent advisory Committee on Standards in Public Life. Its first report in 1995 defined the principles expected, again seven – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – all positive characteristics. These have since then been expected of all in public service, elected or appointed, national and local. Indeed, I was asked some years ago about my understanding of them at an interview for an honorary post on a government committee.
It is on these principles that those against whom complaints have been made are tested. Those parliamentarians who fail to come up to the standards required by the committee can expect their party or the Prime Minister to take appropriate action against them, often requiring resignation from their post. If they are Ministers of the Government, they are subject to additional and detailed requirements in a Ministerial Code of Conduct. For all of this, the ultimate authority is the Prime Minister, who also appoints the independent advisor on ministerial standards, who reports to him. It was no surprise that, rather quietly, the Prime Minister very recently published a revised code, removing the requirement to resign and toning down the emphasis on ethical behaviour.
It cannot have occurred to Lord Nolan and his commissioners that within three decades a minister accused of breaking the code and requiring to be tested against the principles with which all public servants must comply would be the Prime Minister himself. Mr Johnson is presumably in the difficult position of deciding whether he is guilty or not and has understandably looked carefully at the code of conduct, found possible ambiguities, and rewritten bits. At the same time, he has limited the powers of his independent advisor, Lord Geidt, to investigate such cases further.
Nevertheless, the revised code still makes clear that if any minister deliberately misleads the House, he or she must offer resignation – to the Prime Minister. His failure to do so suggests, from his alleged ignorance that a friend's loan paid for the redecoration of Number 10 to his lack of awareness of the parties all around him during the lockdown, that he lacks insight into how his behaviour looks to those to whom he is ultimately answerable: the electorate. Until subjected to this electoral test, he must convince his parliamentary colleagues that he has been selfless, shown integrity, and was objective, accountable, open and honest in all his actions as Prime Minister. As we have seen, he has failed to persuade 41% of his own party. As for leadership, I'm not sure I would follow him, a man who wavers and vacillates over every decision until he sees wherein lies his personal advantage.
As a schoolboy, I was punished for disobedience by having to write out verses of Paradise Lost
. It occurs that a suitable punishment the Prime Minister might give to himself would be to read The Water Babies
, starting at chapter six where he will meet those strange old ladies and learn how to gain redemption for any errors he may have made. Or he could resign. His Conservative colleagues may of course be worrying about casting stones in the translucent House they occupy, governed as they are similarly by Lord Nolan's principles.
Meanwhile, he grows increasingly to resemble a defiant Falstaff, with respect to honour: 'Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism'. Does this apply also to the 59% who support him? Is it honourable to mislead his colleagues; are they acting selflessly?
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own