Matt Hancock had to resign as Secretary of Health because his actions took away from his authority the legitimacy demanded by political power. After breaking the rules he imposed on others, his authority – to lead the NHS, to decide on Covid restrictions, to determine health policies at all levels – has been shattered.
Rather than moving quickly, as our political culture and the news cycle tend to do, we should stop for a moment and contemplate this relationship between authority and legitimacy. What makes authority legitimate? And is there enough legitimacy for authority in Britain?
Democracy is of course part of the answer. We must be free to elect and reject our governments, and public services must be held accountable to us, either directly as users, through local or national politicians, or through officials and regulators overseen by those that we elect.
But legitimacy is much more than that, because authority must also be ethical. It must be public service, not selfish interests. It must be open and transparent. It must be held by people committed to upholding standards of honesty and integrity.
And yet, if we’re honest, far too many institutions in Britain and far too many people in positions of authority are failing.
Take the recent report of the independent investigation into the murder of Daniel Morgan. Daniel was found murdered with an ax thrown through his neck in 1987. After four inquiries, several inquiries and two unsuccessful prosecutions, no one has been convicted of his murder.
It is widely believed that the failure was caused not only by incompetence, but also by what the investigation called “institutional corruption” of the Metropolitan Police.
Skeptics might argue that a crime from 34 years ago – however terrible – says little about police today. But there is a long list of more recent abuses of police power. And the investigation complained that the Met had even in recent years done everything it could to hinder its work, denying and limiting access to important documents. “Covering up or denying flaws, in the name of the organization’s public image, is dishonesty for the benefit of reputation and constitutes a form of institutional corruption,” protested the panel.
This conclusion is surprisingly similar to that drawn by the Reverend James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, who investigated police conduct during and after the Hillsborough disaster. Jones attacked the “inexplicable condescending disposition of power” and described a cultural condition in which “an unwritten, even tacit, connection between individuals in organizations [can lead to] an instinctive priority of an organization’s reputation over the citizen’s right to expect people to be held to account.
This condescending disposition is common and is not limited to the police. The report on the Mid-Staffordshire Hospital Trust scandal, in which hundreds of people died needlessly and many more were mistreated between 2005 and 2008, made the same observation. Victims in Staffordshire âfailed because of a system that ignored warning signs and put self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety,â the investigation found.
And the problem persists. Even as the NHS did a heroic job to fight Covid, hospitals have referred patients to care homes where the virus has spread rapidly, killing thousands of vulnerable and elderly people. During the same period, several hundred patients were given orders to “not attempt resuscitation” without discussion, and many orders were applied generally to whole groups of people, such as those with difficulty in resuscitation. ‘learning. As many who have lost loved ones through negligence and mistake can attest, the official response to such a failure is too often a wall of denial and obfuscation.
Elsewhere we have social workers who have failed to protect children from grooming gangs through inappropriate political correctness and cynical passivity in the face of the supposed “worldliness” of vulnerable young people they have been asked to protect. . We have private companies that have paid small bucks to run contracted children’s homes that do not protect young people from sexual exploitation and drug addiction.
These are all examples of hiding poor performance and failures. But the condescending disposition of power is sometimes motivated by other factors: often financial interests, and often by the adoption of inappropriate political or ideological positions.
We have universities so dependent on China’s income that they have lost their independence, academic freedom and moral compass. Cambridge University Press, which is owned by the University of Cambridge, has previously tried to block online access to its newspaper, China Quarterly, for students in China. More recently, Peter Nolan, a Cambridge donation, argued that the Uyghur genocide in Xinjiang was an inappropriate topic of debate and compared China’s policies to how all other countries treat ethnic minorities.
Elsewhere we have irresponsible quangos and public bodies, from the National Trust to the Election Commission, engaging in political controversies for ideological and partisan reasons. The Climate Change Committee, not content with advising Parliament on the right way forward to reduce carbon emissions in accordance with its statutory remit, has pledged to ‘broaden its perspectives’ to cover corporate commitments and issues. ‘”Equity” and “equity”. distribution of costs and benefits âin the pursuit of net zero emissions.
Such is the scale of the economic change brought about by the net zero target, and the enormous costs to British families, it is totally inappropriate that such matters are left to a technocratic committee. But that’s what its members are now expecting.
Matt Hancock’s resignation is a reminder that authority needs legitimacy. This does not apply only to individuals but to institutions, and not just to politicians but to public services and agents of all kinds. Britain urgently needs zealous reform to restore legitimacy to the authority of those with power and influence over our lives.