The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

The slow death of virtue and competence left us vulnerable to Covid

Many among our elites crave the appearance of virtue rather than the thing itself. A confrontation with reality has been coming for a while.

By: Jonathan McMahon

History tells us that the boundary between tragedy and farce is permeable. And, as current events demonstrate, it is often crossed. But among the many ironies of the current assault on Britain’s history, the University of Liverpool’s decision to remove William Gladstone’s name from its buildings stands out for its ignorance.

We may not agree with Gladstone on everything, and we are right to scrutinise his record. However, perhaps more than anyone else in our history, he was one to elevate good government in the national interest. His reforms of the British civil service led to this country’s reputation for effective and largely incorruptible national governance. They created an administrative elite comprising men and women of great ability and probity.

Was this elite unimpeachable? No.

Was Gladstone himself flawed? Of course.

But, to paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant, humanity is made of crooked timber.

Not long after I watched Gladstone’s name being cancelled, the current government confirmed that my three children weren’t being allowed to return to school.

They can now go shopping. They can sip a lemonade in our local pub. An education with their friends and classmates, however? Of course not.

How have we sunk so far? How is it that we are not allowed to see one of our greatest Prime Ministers named, but we must watch the administrative standards he fostered crumble in front of our eyes?

In truth, this confrontation with reality has been coming for a while. For it is now blindingly obvious that many among our elites crave the appearance of virtue rather than the thing itself. In this bizarre parallel universe, being highly competent is less important than holding the ‘right’ views. Doing things which improve lives is less important than signalling that an organisation thinks in the ‘right way’.

The resultant hollowing-out has been visible for years, most obviously in the media, but also, increasingly, in the police.

The effects in government and the civil service are less obvious, but should concern us equally. During the Covid crisis the NHS’s frontline professionals have bailed out their managerial and political masters. The lions have, again, saved the donkeys.

However, this only reveals a much larger, and more alarming, truth: the British state has not had a good crisis. We are not being governed well. We have barely coped while other nations have excelled.

Sadly, things are likely to get worse before they get better. The need for a strong hand on the tiller has rarely been greater. The need for competence and common sense among our leaders, in all fields, has seldom been higher.

The Victorians certainly had their faults. But they knew something about running a country. They would have spotted the difference between contemporary virtue signalling and real virtue. They understood that the latter required hard work, not slogans. They knew that social progress came from building, not destroying.

The slow death of our administrative traditions has left the United Kingdom desperately vulnerable at a time of national crisis – and the elites which got us into this mess surely cannot get us out of it. They are trapped inside a bubble, bouncing off walls which have become impermeable to reality.

Meanwhile, look around the major political parties and it is hard to see anyone who might lead us through these dangerous times. Hard to see who will speak for the administrative standards of our forebears, whose memory is erased while these present elites either cooperate or stand by and do nothing.

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All Comments (9)

  • I have to agree with your reflection on the state of our government, with the comment “lions led by donkeys” being particular apt.

  • Another exellent article , it seems as if the adults have left the room as far as taking some sort of responsibility for this mess.

  • Our PM, not unreasonably, has tried to act in a liberal intellectual manner with his colleagues. He has been up against an agenda driven media and an opposition who would happily destroy the general populous resolve for their own ends, looking to programme us. The pandemic was a gift to them. Problem they will find is that British people can’t be easily moulded.

  • The Tory Government over the last 10 years has been the worst since WW2 and over the last 6 months has hit rock bottom. Having divorced some genuine friends in Europe, we seem to be blindly heading into a trade deal with the USA. Welcome to chlorinated chicken and hormone enriched beef : goodbye to our NHS which the Tories have privatized by stealth since Thatcher and not helped by Blair’s PFI contracts.
    The only way out for the UK is a government of true proportional representation whereby the interests of the country are put well before personal careers and political idealogy.

    • I agree that the May and Cameron ministries were contenders for the worst since WWII. The degree of incompetence and woolly thinking was staggering to behold. I am also concerned about heading headlong into strategic reliance on the US, which is a capricious power and will exact a step price for any such relationship. However, I do not understand the problem with chlorinated chicken. It’s fine.

  • I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed in this article, it is as if our countries elites have stagnated and fallen asleep at the wheel.
    In the last 40 to 50 years the governance and thereby the steerage of our country has been offshore.
    Yes, we do need people of vision and strength of leadership and thus far we have not seen this from any quarter. By December 2020 we will know our standing with or without an EU deal. Personally I believe a deal
    now is not as important as Britain’s future world trade and self-governance. By then we need to be moving forward with our own plans for the countries future trading partnerships.

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