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ANDERSON: The importance of ethics in 21st century politics

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July 17, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


When William the Conqueror defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings on the 14th of October 1066, he inherited a kingdom already in the final stages of becoming a nation, and one far more bureaucratically advanced than any other region in the Europe of the day.

But more important even than the mechanism of state was the ethos undergirding it, and that was trust bonds between men. The concept of trust bonds predated the Christian era in the Saxon world, implicit as it was in the laws of Æthelberht and Ine, and explicit in the heroic tradition of Beowolf and the writings of Gildas. Oath-taking and oath-making formed the backbone of Saxon law in the era of Penda, Oswui and Edwin of Northumbria, and when Christianity gradually transformed the ethical landscape of the early kingdoms from individualistic revenge/compensation based law to laws in accordance with God, the barbarian concept of oaths remained and grew stronger.

Christianity, through the agency of Churchmen like Wulfstan, Wilfred, Willibrord and Boniface, mediated the tradition by widening the ethos of trust. Crime became an injury not just to the victim, but to all of Christian society and oaths became promises to God, not just promises to other men. From the mixture of Christianity and barbaric tradition arose the concept of “common law” - a sort of traditional, functional, common-sense approach based on fairness, trust, and rights and obligation.

While no volume of written law has survived from the later Saxon period, we know that courts were oath-based, and that oaths were taken so seriously that if ever anyone were discovered to be taking an oath in vain he would be stripped of the right to ever make oath again in court. Indeed, one historical tradition holds that Harold lost at Hastings in 1066 through divine intervention because he had broken an oath taken on sacred relics to allow the English kingdom to pass to William.

Fast forward to the Victorian era, when for a century and a half a handful of English men and women were able to hold together an Empire that spanned the globe. We hear these days much about imperial armed domination, but any serious student of imperial Britain understands that for the lion's share of the empire's life, the only arms available were a few local sepoy troops following them through loyalty. What held the British empire together was an ethos of trust.

That statement may seem fanciful to the cynic, a sort of mythology that masked much darker imperial motives, and it is today received wisdom that imperial Britain was entirely based on greed, love of lucre, and superior arms. But reading first-hand accounts, both of the wars and daily life in the reaches of the empire, soon impresses upon the reader how the British saw themselves. From a letter written in India to a friend in England in 1901, this:

As an administrator, the Englishman in India exhibits an integrity, a wholehearted devotion to duty, a sympathy with the poor and distressed, which has never been surpassed in the history of nations. ~ “Letters from India”, Ed. Lady Wilson, 1911

And it wasn't just the English who saw themselves through rosy glasses. Here, written by his wife about a district administrator's attendance at a Darbar (meeting of local notables) in 1894:

...on these solemn occasions Jim has to make a speech in Hindustani from his dias at the end of the long narrow tent. In it he had commended all the District Notables[sic], beginning with those who sat at his right hand in the front row of chairs. They were the large landowners[...]. After them came the District officials, [then] the English policeman and a dozen of his chief Indian subordinates, [the] Tahsildars, and the five Indian Judges and Magistrates. ~ “Letters from India”, Ed. Lady Wilson, 1911

These few and lonely British administrators lived lives outnumbered tens of thousands to one, dispensing justice across the empire with only occasional outbreaks of violence directed at them. They did not do it – they could not have done it - through force of arms alone. They were able to do it because they were trusted, and the British civil service of the Victorian era were trusted because they were, quite frankly, almost universally trustworthy. To govern with the trust and consent of the governed was the only possible way for a few hundred British civil servants to rule over tens of millions of Indians.

That trust in westerners the British gave birth to lasted at least into the 1960s. Lest anyone think the trust is self-delusional romanticism on the part of starry-eyed Victorians, I remember as a very young child my mother, in the Old Delhi bazaar, being offered some sari material. We were about to go back to Canada on Home Leave and my mother had changed all her ready cash into Canadian traveller's cheques, and when she told the wallah this unfortunate news, he said: “take it away Memsahib, and send money from Canada.”

That implicit trust in westerners has washed away by now I imagine in Britain's former colonies, but it remains the backbone of the governments set up by the British, including Canada and the United States, which latter government is founded on the same base of implied trust. We are the inheritors of the British Parliamentary system; a democracy based upon trust in elected officials. If we no longer trust our neighbours, we have no choice but to trust our leaders. Our system of government depends on it. Democracy depends on it.

I worry that now, in what some have called the “post-Christian era,” we are losing the cement that binds our political system together.

American Presidents doing hanky panky between the bedsheets may be old hat, but Nixon was the first to be caught in blatant corruption, and America's response was strong and justified. But then came Clinton, who lied under oath and was more or less excused.

Today we have Trump, who stretches the truth almost as an afterthought, and no one really cares anymore.

At the federal level in Canada, we have the repeated lies and truth-stretching of the PMO, culminating in the almost certain interference by the legislative branch in the judiciary via the SNC-Lavalin Affair, and sending shockwaves through a compromised federal bureaucracy. It's not that we have lost the impulse to govern without corruption - Jody Wilson-Raybould sacrificed her political life trying to avoid corruption – but our leadership, in general, seems to have lost its trust grounding. Our Prime Minister dismisses the clear and documented interference of the SNC-Lavalin Affair as a “difference in perception.”

What in 1974 brought the eternal disgrace of a president and an America flirting with revolution seems today an annual occurrence of little note.

With all this going on above our heads, it is increasingly important that municipal officials jealously safeguard the trust that has been placed in them. They are the ones who hold the least power but are subject to the most temptation, petitioned daily by interests from all sides.

I'm not just talking about outright bribery – we can all agree that such an act would be despicable and untenable – but small abuses like doing a favour for a friend or colleague on a local city council, or asking for small special favours from administration. One merely needs to glance at social media to see reams of almost offhand accusatory assumptions about the crookedness of this or that city council or city council member, and I always dismiss them as uninformed grumbling because I know them to be false, so far.

But if they ever became true we would be in a world of trouble.

— Scott Anderson comments and analyzes from a bluntly conservative point of view.


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