The Salter Lecture: Conscience in the political life

George Osgerby reviews the Salter Lecture

There are positive things we can look forward to, Molly Scott Cato, Quaker and Green MEP, assured her audience at the 2017 Salter Lecture, ‘Brexit, Chilcot and the Role of Conscience in the Political Life’, which was delivered on Wednesday evening at Yearly Meeting, but ‘something is rotten in the public realm’. She argued that the UK now faces ‘a more serious crisis than any my generation can remember’. At a time when leaders of stature were needed it can seem that ‘small souls with little wisdom’ are governing us. ‘Politicians are still human beings,’ she said, ‘so, how can we balance reason and intuition; the need to represent people with conscience?’

Turning to ‘truth, lies and Brexit’, she said: ‘I’ve always been an incompetent liar myself.’ For others: ‘Being economical with the truth is in the DNA of politics.’ She added that ‘constructive ambiguity’ is the term used by some ‘when they are not ready to tell the truth’. A sense of ‘failed government’ was engendered because a binary political system cannot deal with answers from the people that cut across party lines.

The Brexit referendum campaign had been ‘a deeply disturbing time’, she said. Many voters, she added, were motivated by despair and feelings of abandonment: ‘Never before had my knowledge and learning felt of so little use to me.’ Jo Cox MP was murdered during the campaign, and she had feared for her own safety. A majority had voted to leave the EU, but ‘leave’ meant different things to different people, partly because of the nature of the pro-Brexit campaign. It was fair to suggest a ratification referendum when (and if) the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU are agreed.

She proposed a four-point prescription for British politics: a new Great Reform Bill, a fairer voting system, a written constitution and a democratic House of Lords. Addressing the Chilcot report, she said it has had a massive impact. The Iraq war was illegal, she insisted, ‘policy enacted on a deceit’. Tony Blair had acted as if he had ‘a hotline to the Almighty – the opposite of listening to a still, small voice… proper moral reflection’. She found his behaviour ‘almost sacrilegious’.

She praised Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, and the late David Kelly, the government scientist, who had both ‘acted nobly in the eye of the storm’. The former went public with his concerns and continued to advocate diplomacy when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. The latter was ‘a big profile whistleblower acting in the best interests of his country… punished for doing the right thing’. She asked: ‘Can we be assured that in such a situation we could still follow our conscience?’

On the positive side, the recently signed UN nuclear weapons ban treaty is ‘a huge cause for celebration’. But it is ‘shameful that the UK government opposes this’ and fails to live up to its duty under earlier treaties to support multilateral disarmament processes.

Molly Scott Cato described some of her work in the European Parliament. Some people argue that tax avoidance is legitimate tax planning while tax evasion is fraud and immoral. However, she said the distinctions are ‘invidious’. She alluded to the sheer effort involved in trying to tackle the ‘global kleptocracy’. Again, she praised the enormous courage of whistleblowers ‘shining light into dark corners’. They need more protection. She criticised the hypocrisy of the UK: ‘It takes two to tango in a corrupt deal.’ Foreign dictatorships may be condemned with alacrity but it is in European banks where they hide their money.

For Molly Scott Cato, ‘social justice and the protection of the planet we share’ are imperative, and ‘serious differences are not being healed’. We need to be listening to all sides, she said. Evidence can be imperfect. Judgement is vital, informed by experience and strengthened by conscience. Conscience is ‘personal, to be kept private’. It is ‘that still, small voice’.

It is not hard to criticise politicians, she noted, but it is in our own self-interest for the best people to come forward. So, politicians should be upheld and supported, too. Conscience in public life would benefit from the involvement of more Friends, she argued, and she said: ‘Put yourself forward if you’re unhappy with the way things are.’

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.