Bye-Bye Ethics Adviser

23 June 2022

Bye-Bye Ethics Adviser

Quite enough of that.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

If the words “ethics adviser” don’t make you cringe there really is something wrong with you. The mere existence of such a post indicates that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, even if for this analogy to work we have to move Copenhagen to central London.

To be fair to Lord Geidt, “ethics adviser” is not his real title, just a description coined by the press. Judging from his letterhead, which we all saw on his resignation letter last week, he is really the “Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests” but his remit seems to go  further than that and includes judging when failure to resign over an officially generated porky has breached the Ministerial Code and when measures to protect UK industry breach our WTO obligations. It is understood that it was a proposal to pursue protectionist policies which triggered his resignation. Having swallowed Partygate and the redecoration of the prime ministerial flat, the final straw was an attempt by the Government to get him to “pre-approve” subsidies to UK industry which could have put us in breach of our WTO obligations, thus using him to give cover for a possible breach of international law.

One can certainly see he would not want to be used as a patsy in this way, but whatever else did he expect when he took the job? Of course a Government about to do something contentious will try to buttress itself by lining up support from its advisers, just as a company taking a legally dubious stance will try to fortify itself with a counsel’s opinion. That is how the world works and if he did not expect to be used in that way Lord Geidt was beyond naïve.

Still, even leaving that aside the idea of a general ethics adviser is an odd one. Surely once he has been fully briefed on the facts of the situation, it should be for the Prime Minister to decide what is the proper course. The reality is, of course, that every Prime Minister is going to have to take decisions of dubious honesty from time to time, just as every businessman or public servant is. Often a balance will have to be struck between the wish to behave with integrity and the need to follow a particular policy. God save us from the leader who will sacrifice the public good for the sake of consistency and being seen to “keep his word”. You may call him a “man of integrity” but “idiot” would probably be a better word. Good politics means striking a wise balance between policy, integrity, compassion, and good sense. Eyebrows would indeed be raised if an adviser was appointed to deal with policy, compassion and good sense. Why then would any leader treat integrity as falling into a special category? To provide cover to hide behind, that’s why.

This tendency to use advisers in this way is one of the less attractive features of modern politics. It is perfectly fair, of course, in the case of the Queen who is constitutionally bound to follow the advice of her Prime Minister, but ministers whose job is to weigh matters up and decide should get on with it and do so. Certainly they may need advisers on technical subjects but not, surely, on general matters of conduct. If Boris decides that he needs to subsidise the British steel industry in defiance of WTO rules, he should make that decision and stand behind it after consulting the Government’s legal advisers on the technical question of whether there is a breach of international law. There is no place in this process for a general adviser on ethics.

One cannot imagine stronger leaders seeking to cover themselves in this way. Yes, Henry V took advice on his claim to the French throne but once he had that advice he had no doubt as to the action he should take. The Victorians would have regarded the question of what was ethical as one which every English gentleman was equipped to decide. Can you imagine Mrs Thatcher relying on the views of her ethics adviser as a reason to make or not make a decision? Of course not, because (like her or not) she was a leader. That is somebody who makes their own mind up and sticks to it without needing the support of public opinion or advisers behind whom he or she can shelter. No doubt from time to time she made unethical decisions but at least those decisions were her own.

Years ago I held a few shares in a large property development company. It was founded and run by a Jewish businessman with an outstanding flair for forecasting future demand. Naturally he was surrounded by surveyors and experts but in the end he would frequently override their advice and generally his judgement proved to be correct. The business thrived. After his death, the group was run by a distinguished accountant whose decisions relied heavily on the professional advice he received. It was good advice, no doubt, but the business began to decline as it tended to follow the market rather than outguessing it. Eventually a new chief executive took over and I remember watching him perform at the AGM. Gone was the carefulness of the adviser-led regime; instead there was an atmosphere of confidence and one sensed that the man, very much another Jewish entrepreneur, was amused at watching his directors being put under pressure. A man who would back his own judgement. The movement back from management based on advice to management based on flair revitalised the company.

Running a country is not exactly like running a property empire but for all that there are things in common. Confidence in the decisions you are making is key and that means that once you have made your mind up, based no doubt on the technical information provided to you, you get on with it and do not start half delegating the decisions you should be making to someone else. There is no room in this structure for a general adviser on ethics. Lord Geidt should have known better than to accept the role and Boris Johnson should have known better than to appoint him.

By all means appoint a new adviser dealing solely with the narrow and technical field of conflicts of interest but it really should not go further than that.

tile photo: by Nathan Shively on Unsplash

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