Clannish creep throttles civic spirit

April 25, 2003

The British concept of public duty is being undermined by the erosion of national loyalty and the elevation of individual rights, argues Roger Scruton

Those of us brought up in postwar Britain have no difficulty in distinguishing private from public obligations. It is second nature to think of government as a public sphere, defined by offices, procedures and duties. We believe that those in public office are accountable in some way to people whom they do not know but whose interests they nevertheless serve. This "accountability to strangers" used to be taken for granted. But it can be taken for granted no longer.

The idea that good government depends on the successive occupation of offices by people bound by prescribed duties is subtly defended by Aristotle in Politics, and later taken up by Machiavelli, Montesquieu, the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution and by Hegel in the Philosophy of Right. Many of those who have discussed the idea associate distinctive human virtues with particular forms of government. And those of us who are heir to the British concept of the "public servant" have had experience of a particular kind of virtue - "public spirit" - that informs the entire character and outlook of those who possess it.

Public spirit arises when people experience their membership of civil society in terms of duties. It disappears when - as happened during the French Revolution and again today - their social membership is experienced in terms of rights only.

The virtue of public spirit has been celebrated in our literature, by writers as diverse as George Eliot and Graham Greene. The "incorruptible civil servant" remains an ideal that our politicians invoke whenever it is necessary to pass the buck to some convenient abstraction. But the incorruptible civil servant is not merely an abstraction. By idealising public life we also change it; and the propagation of an ideal shapes the character of those who are taught to follow it.

British people still tend to believe that public offices are defined by public duties rather than private rights, and that, in the performance of these duties, the office holder is "accountable to strangers". I use this phrase in recognition of a fundamental feature of our forms of government.

Public administration in our tradition is based on elaborate dealings between people who do not know one another and do not even want to know one another. But they trust one another nevertheless, because of their shared understanding that, in the conduct of public life, strangers are on a par with friends. This shared understanding lies at the heart of national loyalty, and it is what makes citizenship, as opposed to mere social membership, possible.

What exactly does this mean in practice? Consider the most fundamental of public offices: that of the judge. Judges must be impartial; they must give no precedence to friends, colleagues or family; they must hear both sides of the case; they must base their judgments on the facts, and they must respect the law as it is, and not as they would like it to be. Some of these requirements are enshrined in our administrative law as "principles of natural justice", and any breach of them can be invoked on appeal in order to overthrow a judgment. This is true not only of the courts of law, but also of any institution in which a quasi-judicial decision is being made.

It is easy to see what corruption means in a judge. The differences between just and unjust decisions, and between the partial and impartial assessments of a case, are known to everyone with any degree of moral sense. We are so clear on this point that we have evolved procedures to ensure that judges cannot be subject to pressures that are extraneous to their office. We do not allow judges to enter politics, for example, and we are careful to bestow on them dignities and titles that will - we hope - make the office itself sufficient compensation for their labours, so removing the temptation to seek any other advantages from holding it.

In many parts of the world judges are political appointees, who have to toe the line of some ruling demagogue or faction. In such places the office itself has been corrupted. Another way of putting the point is to say that judges, in such places, have ceased to account to all those strangers who have an interest in their office, and instead account only to those on whom they depend for their job.

We are all called upon to make quasi-judicial decisions, whether in appointing someone to a position, punishing a wrongdoer, or assessing who best deserves a prize. And we all are familiar with the pressures to account for our decision to the wrong people and in the wrong kind of way.

There is no doubt that the person who is guided always by strict and impartial justice can appear cold and even repellent. There is a great fissure between the demand that officials remain accountable to strangers, and the rival demand that they account to their friends. This distinction is apparent to those who have had to deal with tribal or clan societies.

Someone who obtains public office in a clan society will be under immediate pressure to reward those who helped him to acquire it. Not to respond to this pressure is to risk accusations of ingratitude, even unfeelingness.

Since the whole society sees the matter in this way, the position of impartial office-holders is virtually untenable. They will be harshly judged by those who helped them, and also by those whom they help. In these circumstances "accountability to strangers" has not taken root, and public morality consists in loyalty to family and friends. In other words, the public sphere has not separated itself from the private, and offices are regarded as private assets, to be used to reward those who have a legitimate private claim on them.

The situation that I have described is familiar to all who have had dealings with African or Middle Eastern society. It is also one that is of great relevance to our own societies, as they strive to absorb immigrant communities shaped by tribal, familial and religious loyalties, but who have no understanding or respect for the idea of citizenship. The public sphere is a reality still in western societies, fenced off from private ambitions by the duties of office. By insisting that office holders be accountable to strangers, we save the public sphere from predation and ensure that rational decision-making is directed to the common good. When office-holders account to their friends only, the public sphere degenerates, and impartial justice gives way to intrigue, favouritism and force.

This degeneration is something from which we have been shielded by our tradition of public service - still witnessed at local level among scrupulous planning officers and unbribable magistrates, but less and less witnessed in the offices of state. As rights displace duties from the centre of social thinking, government becomes infected by a vague and all-pervading "niceness", the first effect of which is to exclude those "nasty" people who put duty first.

The old ideal of public service gives way to government by and for the sake of our friends. That is why the old civil service, in which offices were defined and occupied without reference to politics, is giving way to a new kind of civil service of "special advisers", appointed by the prime minister from among those who already agree with him. The new House of Lords is filled by non-entities whose sole claim to be there is that they have given a lot of money to a political party or belong to the circle of the prime minister's friends. Some of them become ministers, with no other proof of competence than their generosity or their blokeishness.

Nevertheless, outside government circles, the lingering memory of the British ideal still operates to slow down and, occasionally, to prevent public corruption. Elsewhere in Europe the impediments are less; and now that we are governed by decree from Brussels, the rot is bound to spread to our own institutions. The most basic form of "accountability to strangers" is the submission of financial accounts to an independent auditor, with a view to justifying expenditure to all those who have an interest in its proper use. The European Commission regards the fact that no auditor has in recent years been able to pass its accounts as a proof that auditors are dispensable. Criticising the accounts has become a sackable offence. And it comes as a shock to discover that the commissioner who sacked the current auditor on these grounds is a British subject, Neil Kinnock.

Such cases raise the question of how we might prevent our society from sliding into the morass of conflicting interests that is likely to ensue when all public offices are seen as private property and all accounting takes place solely between friends. I suggest that our belief in the public sphere and accountability to strangers comes from national loyalty.

In my book, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, I argue that national loyalty elevates territory above religion, and territorial jurisdiction above familial, tribal and credal ties.

Territorial jurisdiction - as exemplified in the law of England - exalts place into a public arena, where strangers can mingle in safety and disputes will be settled without reference to private gain. In short, national loyalty is the precondition of citizenship.

With the erosion of this loyalty, and the replacement of public duties by private rights as the foundation of political order, the public arena becomes progressively privatised by cliques, cartels and mafiosi. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the institution that has set itself most determinedly against the idea of the nation-state - namely the European Union - is also the seat of the widest-reaching forms of economic and political corruption.

Roger Scruton is honorary professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham. He is delivering a plenary lecture at the Re/Constructing Corruption conference at the University of East Anglia on April 30.

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