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.