In 1994, the UK government established a Committee on Standards in Public Life. The remit of the committee was to make recommendations to improve standards of behaviour in public life. The committee was chaired by Lord Nolan, and the first report of the committee established the seven principles of public life, also known as the “Nolan Principles”.
What are the Nolan Principles?
- Selflessness – Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
- Integrity – Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
- Objectivity – In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
- Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
- Openness – Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.
- Honesty – Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
- Leadership – Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.
In other words, these are the principles that ministers should uphold. Why it should be necessary to spell this out in a mature democracy is by the way.
So how does the present government shape up?
Has the government, or its individual ministers, in general upheld these principles? Let us take two simple and obvious case histories.
One has only to look at the government’s handling of the tendering procedure for PPE equipment at the height of the Covid pandemic. The then Secretary of State for Health was handing out contracts like sweets at a children’s party, with no regard to normal tendering practice. Contracts were awarded to firms owned by, or uncomfortably close to, relatives of members of the Conservative Party, to firms with absolutely no experience of making the equipment and, in one case to a bloke Matt Hancock met in a pub.
So you can say goodbye to selflessness, integrity and objectivity.
In the UK, with its farcical electoral system, there is no chance of proper accountability, so we can move on to the next two Nolan principles.
Partygate (the term has even made it into Wikipedia) has revealed that the government, like a cornered rat, will (a) do what it takes to cover its tracks and (b) tell any old lie, no matter how implausible, to shift responsibility for wrongdoing onto someone else. In grown-up governments it is a fundamental principle that ministers take ultimate responsibility for the actions of their junior colleagues or civil servants. So no prizes for openness and honesty either.
As to ‘leadership’, it is quite clear that Boris Johnson is constitutionally incapable of promoting and supporting the Nolan principles through ‘leadership and example’.
To sum up, the present government scores zero out of seven for compliance with the Nolan principles. A more interesting line of inquiry is why all those hundreds of Tory MPs continue to put up with this ludicrous fraudster. We can only speculate (although that’s always fun). Are they afraid of losing their seats at the next election? If so, the obvious thing would be to try to make amends for everything Johnson has inflicted on the country. Or have they been blackmailed by the whips into dumb obedience? There is mounting evidence of this, as the complaint by MP William Wragg has highlighted. Or are they clinging on to office in an attempt to grab even more from the pork barrel. Or – frightening thought – are they, like their boss, simply moral degenerates?