Issue 177: 2018 11 08: The Call Of Duty

Lord Jeremy Heywood (deceased) in front of a banner saying that he was Cabinet Secretary

08 November 2018

The Call Of Duty

A way of living.

By John Watson

The obituary writers have been busy this week with the disappearance of two major figures from the public stage.  First there was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who as owner of Leicester City football club presided over its meteoric rise up the Premier League to take the title in 2016.  Clearly loved and respected at the club, his generosity to the town of Leicester seems to have gone beyond mere football and into the funding of public projects.  No wonder that they are so upset at his death.

The death of Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, has attracted fewer headlines, something which he would probably have regarded as appropriate.  The obituary in The Times refers to him as a“fixer, enforcer, confidant, co-ordinator, peacemaker, crisis manager and keeper of secrets”.  What a list!  One of the most powerful people in Britain and yet always operating quietly behind the scenes, he was a servant of both Labour and Tory Governments, a man who used his considerable talents to keep the show on the road.

It makes quite a contrast with popular culture, doesn’t it?  If you believe the media, everyone worships celebrity and an individual’s “brand” is often more important than what he or she actually achieves.  It is good to be reminded by the example of men like Lord Heywood that the real work is often done by the thoughtful people behind the scenes and not by those whose main talent is self-promotion.  It has always been so.  Who has not attended meetings where, after the main protagonists have had their say and come to what they think is the right decision, the floor is opened for other comment and someone previously unnoticed at the back quietly and without fuss points out what the issue really are and explains how they need to be resolved, often leaving others to adopt the ideas and take the credit?  People like that don’t need to boast about the power they wield.  Wielding it is enough, the satisfaction of duty done.

That sounds old fashioned too, doesn’t it?  People are slow to talk about their duty these days, and yet in Victorian times they referred to it quite frequently.  Nelson’s last words “Thank God I have done my duty” might sound rather formal to the modern ear but it is worth remembering that they were uttered by somebody who was both fairly young and also a considerable expert in public relations.  Things have certainly changed, but I suspect that the change goes more to the public image of duty than to how many people are motivated by it.  We are still the same mix of ambition, modestly, decency, meanness, folly, etc, as we always were and the variety of our motives follows our nature as it always did.

Why then has the public profile of “duty” changed?  Why is everyone so focused on entitlement rather than obligation?  Is it because modern institutions are more impersonal than their predecessors, so that it is easy to fix them with the burdens of the duty to which entitlement corresponds?  It is easier to say “It is their fault” when the “they” does not feel or bleed.  Perhaps though it is just because we have all become wetter, needing to blame someone else for our own failures, our inability to fix things ourselves.

However that may be, the idea of duty is badly needed to fill the secular void as religion retreats and more people find themselves without a God to try to live up to.  What reason are they left with for continuing their existence when the toys and riches of the world are not sufficient to keep them happy?  Is there really any reason why they should carry on?  The obvious answer to that maybe “no” but that is not an answer with which people are comfortable.  Look at the reluctance to accept the possibility of assisted suicide, even among those about to suffer a painful death.  No, we don’t like that answer.  So what else is there?  Some ethereal duty to use the talents with which you have been given to meet the challenges with which you are lucky enough to have been blessed?  Kipling saw it like that, of course, with his injunction “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”  Perhaps that is what the secular citizen should aspire to.  Perhaps the idea of duty will rise again to fill the void left by the decline of religeon.

If of course one really lives life like that, there is certainly no need to supplement it by boasting.  That is the reason why, religious or not, men like Jeremy Heywood are content to operate from the shadows.


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