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April - May 2009
Without Fear or Favour: Comments on Current Issues
by Satjit Singh
When character is lost
The furore over Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension and his refusal to back down over the issue, has dominated headlines in recent days. It has been accompanied by constant reminders of the fact that under his stewardship, RBS made the UK’s biggest corporate loss and caused hardship to hundreds of thousands of people. The Government has had to pump in billions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds, the effects of which will be felt for years to come. Sir Fred, having made his ‘legally tutored regrets’ to the Commons Select Committee, has written to the Government Minister Lord Myners in an also ‘legally tutored note’ saying that he had a legal right to the pension and he was going to take it. In short, he took no responsibility for RBS’s woes and he certainly was not going to do the ‘honourable thing’.
A lot has been written about the nature and scale of the financial disasters and politicians from across the political spectrum have rushed to condemn Sir Fred’s unseemly money grab. What is not so widely discussed is the trend in recent years of not behaving honourably, when things go wrong. Japanese leaders used to commit hara-kiri, part of the samurai honour code, as a form of capital punishment for those who have committed serious offences, and for reasons that shamed them. In the UK, lying to Parliament or leaking a Law letter used to be, by convention, a resigning matter and even in acrimonious political circumstances, accepted by all parties, not just those baying for political blood! That is clearly no longer the case.
In politics, a recent turning point was when Margaret Thatcher leaked a Law Lord’s letter during the Westland Affair; she hid behind a technicality and survived, with Leon Britten her Home Secretary carrying the can for her. John Perfumo, in contrast accepted responsibility and unreservedly apologised (not just expressed regret) for his actions in the Christine Keeler affair and resigned; for many years subsequently, cleaning toilets at an East End charity. Gordon Brown blames international conditions, correct in narrow fact, but accepts no responsibility for what happened on his patch as Chancellor. General Sir Richard Dannat, a serving army chief during a period when the country was at war, criticized the Prime Minister of the day. Instead of asking for his resignation, opposition parties made political hay and used it to beat the government. General Dannat, had he resigned, given up his knighthood and made the speech, would have had more moral authority; instead he chose to have his cake and eat it. After all, a seat in the House of Lords, beckons! In days gone by, that would have, quite appropriately, led to a court martial. As for the politicians backing him, they were complicit in this disgraceful act. There was an expression in the armed forces to describe honourable behaviour - it was called officer-like qualities; ironically, it took an army chief to destroy that! As a young lad in school, I occasionally visited my father’s office. Outside in brass lettering were the following words:
The honour and well being of my country come first;
The safety and well being of the men I command I come next;
My personal well being comes last – always.
My father’s view was that as a Commanding Officer, that was his role. He was not paid for his technical skills, there were others to advise him on that; he was paid for his leadership and if he could not deliver that, he had no business being the Commandant.
If leaders refuse to accept responsibility and act honourably, what hope is there for a younger generation who look to them for guidance and inspiration? We live in an age where serving navy personnel sell stories to the tabloids, of their capture and subsequent release, jilted lovers promptly spill the sordid details of the relationship and breakup to the press. In other times, the jilted lover would have gone and joined the Foreign Legion! Children today are being encouraged by parents to do what they can to get ahead in life; no wonder that they cannot often distinguish right from wrong. They are backed by their parents against teachers; consequently these kids are never going to admit they did wrong. Lawyers are asked to clear every document to ensure that there is no question of accepting liability.
We may not like the state of affairs or even refuse to believe it, but it happens.
Sir Fred’s behaviour, whilst gut wrenching, is no more than a symptom of the wider problem we have in society. I will end by paraphrasing Kennedy who famously said: when wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when
health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost! Maybe we should try telling this to Sir Fred and an entire generation of Brits.
Accepting responsibility and acting honourably are two key traits of character. We need to rediscover them; or, everything is lost!
I must follow the people.
Am I not their leader?
Recently I asked a Conservative Parliamentarian, why BNP members were more likely to vote Conservative. He replied that it was important for a leader to reflect the views of his followers. The Tories, he said, were generally against immigration and therefore it was not surprising that this was attractive to the BNP constituents.
Whether leaders should base their own vision on the views, aspirations and prejudices of the general public or seek to fashion the views of those they lead is a question as old as leadership itself.
In recent times, the Labour party has had two contrasting leaders. Tony Blair led by tearing up Clause 4, repudiating the politics of envy and openly working to combat unhelpful trade unionism. He introduced patient choice, tuition fees and city academies. On Iraq, he took on critics within his own party as well as the general public, to do what he believed to be right, knowing fully well that it could be electoral suicide. Gordon Brown, in contrast, constantly sought resonance from his supporters on all the above issues. Even though he eventually voted for these, he did not give a lead to his supporters. By blocking reform of public services when he had the opportunity to lead it during times of plenty, Brown showed that he was in hock to his supporters, not leading them.
Margaret Thatcher showed leadership when she took on a number in her party, then largely comprised of one-nation Tories. The ‘wets’ were purged from Cabinet. Whether or not one agreed with her, she did not surrender to the prevailing orthodoxy amongst Conservatives. However even she let herself down when during an election campaign she used ‘dog whistle’ tactics to pander to the base elements within her party declaring, “British people felt swamped by those of a different culture”. She may have justified it as seeking resonance with the voters; many feel that whilst populist, it was not leadership.
I would suggest that since Blair, Britain has been ill-served by political leadership. The government is in terminal decline despite his best efforts, the Prime Minister appears overwhelmed and paralysed. Whether or not Brown’s efforts succeed, people are already looking to the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, as a Prime Minister in-waiting. It is imperative that we get someone with real leadership qualities; a statesman, not a mere politician. So which one is Cameron?
A leader should deal in hope and inspire people to strive for the best they are capable of.. With that in mind, I spent hours reviewing Cameron’s speeches and it felt like Ground Hog day. All I found were repeated references to British society being broken, the nation being bankrupt and people no longer having confidence in the pound. Ever since he talked down the currency, sterling plunged on world markets; a treasonable offence in another era! In difficult times, people look to their leaders for hope and comfort, not scaremongering and despondency. Whilst Brown continues to be in denial, Cameron uses the situation for narrow political gain, not realising that as the next Prime Minister it will fall to him to fix the problem. The deeper he talks the economy down, the greater the scale of his challenge. If he does not grasp this, we have a real problem.
In contrast to Cameron, Churchill’s answer to adversity was to say, “In defeat – defiance”. If he had not done so, we would all have been speaking German! More recently, Obama’s election as American President symbolised the triumph of hope over despondency. His speeches, whilst acknowledging harsh realities, have been long on optimism - a fundamental difference between him and Cameron. Although it is early days, his ability to confront problems, whilst resisting the temptation to continually blame his predecessor, is both refreshing and encouraging. Obama and Cameron are young and articulate; whilst one uses his positive energy to spell out his vision and lift others, the latter’s negativity is characterised by one-upmanship and point scoring.
Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. It is Cameron’s tactical, rather than strategic maneuvering, that has got him where he is; his scores on strategy are not great. As for character, recently in response to a question he said, how despite an avowed abhorrence of Punch and Judy politics and a promise to eschew it, he could not pass up the opportunity to make political hay (not his exact words but I assure you, faithful in substance). It plays well to backbenchers and Tory galleries in Middle-England, but it shows Cameron taking a cue from, rather than providing leadership to his troops. He fails on the test that the ultimate measure of a leader is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Allied to character is the question of judgment. Cameron continues to accept political donations from unsavoury people like Lord Ashcroft as well as others who have made fortunes working against the British economy. Supping with people of dubious reputations always has its consequences, as both Mandelson and Osborne discovered during ‘Yachtgate’. Tony Blair’s reputation took a big hit when he accepted a donation (promptly returned) from Bernie Eccelestone. Even in the short time that he has been the leader of opposition, we have plenty of examples of where Cameron’s judgment is on such issues. Leaders must have a combination of moral values and strength of character which guide their behaviour and prepare them to face challenges.
Perhaps Rosalynn Carter, the wife of President Carter, summed up leadership best when she said: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” Xenophobic posturing (British jobs for British workers), talking down British prospects (the country is bankrupt, the social fabric is broken), etc., may go down well with Daily Mail readers; they do no credit to leaders who are supposed to lift the rest of us out of our difficulties. Dissatisfaction and discouragement are not caused by the absence of things but absence of vision.
Currently there are few, if any, statesmen to be found amongst British politicians. There is a paucity of conviction and self-belief which prevents our leaders to rise above the paralysis of helplessness. It is to these people that I refer the following by Robert Kennedy.
“Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills — against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and a 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. ‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world.’ These men moved the world, and so can we all.”
In Britain, clearly we will have to wait for such a leader.
Political correctness or institutionalised politeness?
Some may have been tackling the snow to make it to work, others busy fighting the effects of the recession to notice the controversy generated by Carol Thatcher’s referring to a tennis player of African descent as a Golliwog. This happened at a BBC studio where Thatcher made these remarks in conversation over a drink. When these remarks reached the ‘outside world’ through the invariable leaks, the BBC asked her to apologise; she refused and was ‘removed’ from the programme she was filming for. As you would expect Carol’s friends have rushed to print to defend her and ‘dilute’ the reported remarks, suggesting that dark forces in the BBC were at work against her because of being the daughter of Margaret Thatcher.
Carol’s response was two-fold: firstly it was a private conversation and secondly, there was no offence as she had always liked the golliwog on the label of the jar of the jam she enjoyed as a child. I agreed with her on both fronts. C’mon, can one not make light hearted remarks to close friends whilst imbibing some fine nectar, without being reported to the ‘thought or talk police’? Also, what’s wrong with a bit of harmless fun when ho harm is intended? Personally, I have never had much time for the PC brigade who whilst well-meaning, often cause more harm than good. A white friend and I discussed the incident and I pretty much repeated Carol’s arguments to him, adding as well that it was a bit silly of Thatcher to dig her heels when a simple sorry would have sufficed and killed the story. After all, only last month, Prince Harry had dealt with a similar controversy by issuing a swift apology and the matter rested.
I must confess that I have always regarded Carol as the ‘acceptable face of Thatcher’ and so am indulging of her lapses. Since this incident happened and after I expressed my initial views on it, I have been giving it some more thought. The issues that I debated with myself are as follows:
Firstly, when is a private conversation, a private conversation? Thatcher was in a BBC studio where several BBC staffers of various ethnic origins (cameramen, technicians etc) worked and were present. She expressed her views to a guest on the show and to the producer who were colleagues on this programme. When challenged she apparently carried on regardless. The studio was not her drawing room, nor a public house where such banter often takes place and is excusable on the grounds that it is with friends and in a ‘private’ environment. When public figures speak in public places, they have to accept that their remarks are not private and hiding behind this ‘privacy façade’ is not an option. After all, when mummy Thatcher fighting an election said that British people felt swamped by other cultures (or words to that effect), there was an immediate increase in racial attacks on ethnic minorities in the UK.
Secondly, when someone refuses to apologise for a remark like this, it suggests that they believe that they did nothing wrong. If that is so, I would therefore have preferred that Thatcher stood up for herself and said that she felt that the use of the ‘gw’ word was not inappropriate. Hiding behind the jam jar label smacked to me of cowardice; not apologising of churlishness. Whilst this stubbornness may make her mother proud, ordinary mortals find this mix of cowardice and churlishness unacceptable.
Thirdly, coming to the content of what she said; we have come a long way in the UK where we have, by and large, a happy state of race relations (although given the economic climate, this may be a casualty). It has been achieved by a combination of a number of things: better legislation, a greater awareness of each other by immigrant and the indigenous populations, a ‘near zero’ tolerance for racism by the latter and above all a host community committed to seeing fairness. The ‘near zero’ tolerance being practiced is often mistakenly referred to as political correctness. If it is interpreted to mean not being rude to others and not unfairly treating people because of the colour of their skin, then it is not political correctness, but an act of courtesy and decency. Where I have problems with political correctness is when job titles no longer reflect the content of the role but a mistaken notion that a change is needed so as not to make it feel demeaning, for examples, cleaners being designated as ‘hygiene operatives’. Allowing non-English speaking immigrants to work here and expecting the tax payer to fund language lessons, is political correctness I disagree with, as is the banning of Christmas celebrations in offices. I would also have a problem is someone was unable to refer to me as a ‘dark skinned’ and had to use some silly euphemism. However, I would be livid and not merely offended, if I was instead referred to as a golliwog. If this is the choice I face, give me political correctness every day. It is no coincidence, that the first generation that has witnessed a relatively racial strife-free Britain is the one brought up during the enactment of this ‘near zero’ tolerance approach. Those of a previous generation merrily ‘racially abused’ people, sometimes without meaning to. Besides, what example are we setting to the younger generation in terms of norms of behaviour? As an example, I never use abusive language in front of my daughter; consequently, she does not use bad language.
Related to this is the issue of jokes about racial stereotypes. Whilst they may be funny to the narrator and their friends, often the one from the community being made a butt of the joke is not amused. They may sometimes laugh along so as not to seem a stick-in-the mud, but make no mistake, they do not like it. They may crack a joke or two at their own expense so as to be ‘seen to be good sports’ or to ‘fit in’. Besides, it is their prerogative to crack a joke at themselves or their community; for others to do so is an unacceptable liberty.
In defence of political correctness, I quote Stewart Lee when he said on Heresy, ( BBC Radio 4, 16th May 2007).
“The kinds of people that say “political correctness gone mad” are usually using that phrase as a kind of cover action to attack minorities or people that they disagree with. I’m of an age that I can see what a difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham, where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying, “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour,” and he drove me around saying, “this is where all the niggers and the coons and the jungle bunnies live.” And I remember being at school in the early 80s and my teacher, when he read the register, instead of saying the name of the one Asian boy in the class, he would say, “is the black spot in,” right? And all these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst.
And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn’t decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it’s a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made”.
As for racism, no one thinks of themselves as racist; I am also sure that Carol Thatcher does not. However, as Albert Memime said “there is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious”. To those who de facto condone racism by referring to it as ‘just banter – no ill meant’, I would refer you to Abraham J. Heschel who said “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”
Sorry Carol, on mature reflection, I cannot indulge you on this one.