Trickle Down Ethics

Regardless of your political leanings, it is fairly uncontroversial to state that the senior political figures of the United Kingdom have not covered themselves in glory recently. In the past few years alone, we have had several high-profile political scandals, which have surely eroded faith in those in authority.  

Dominic Cummings, the chief advisor to then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, tested his eyesight during lockdown by driving to Barnard Castle, coincidentally on his wife's birthday, when he helped create the rules preventing such a trip. There was also ‘partygate’ where civil servants and members of the Conservative Party held multiple social gatherings in breach of rules, again that they had helped create. Boris Johnson, the then Prime Minister, was implicated in many of these gatherings. Current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was also implicated, being issued a fixed penalty notice for attending Boris Jonhson’s birthday in breach of lockdown rules.

The scandals are not just limited to breaching Covid restrictions. In 2022, Conservative MP Neil Parish resigned after he was discovered watching pornography in the House of Commons on at least two occasions. That same year, Conservative MP Chris Pincher resigned after an incident where he was alleged to have groped two men. Pincher had previous allegations of misconduct dating from 2017, with the government denying that the Prime Minister at the time, Boris Johnson, had any knowledge of this. Boris Johnson contradicted this, admitting that he knew about the earlier allegations before promoting Chirs Pincher, which ultimately led to his resignation as Prime Minister. Current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was recently issued with another fixed penalty notice for filming a video while not wearing a seatbelt in a moving vehicle.  

Some will think that many of these misdemeanours are trivial and unimportant. What matters is what politicians do in government, and the police could be doing more important things than fining a Prime Minister for not wearing a seatbelt. Hasn’t everyone broken some laws at some point in their lives?

I believe this response is wrong. For a start this surely increases voter apathy which will in turn impact voter turnout. I also, however, have an additional hypothesis as to why this is a serious issue. I suspect how people in political power act in their daily lives and what values they hold and stick to  has a trickle-down effect on how we all act. This effect is one we are probably not even aware of.

On this view, if people look up to those who hold the highest positions in politics and see serial liars and narcissists who don’t even adhere to the laws they set, then there is a chance they themselves may not feel like adhering to rules. If true, this really matters and can mean the pantomime of political scandals may well be doing more damage than we think. This will also likely have a bigger impact on younger people, who are more prone to rule-breaking and testing boundaries.

Of course, what matters most is what politicians do in power, but we severely lack politicians in the public eye who are deeply principled and act with integrity. It may be the case that the system itself prevents these people from emerging into higher positions of power. Perhaps compromising one’s values and a Machiavellian approach is rewarded within politics. Added to this, it may be that those who are more charismatic and brash and make loud promises they may not keep are much more suited to our media landscape.

This, sadly, all feels somewhat true, but I am also confident that it would be a welcome relief to many if we had someone of principle and integrity in power. If I am right, then this would have a positive flow-on effect on all of us, one of which we may be unaware.

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