Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Saints and sinners, politicians and priests, and the 2013 local elections

By Matthew Flinders

Justin Welby recently used his first Easter sermon as Archbishop of Canterbury to warn of the dangers of investing too much faith in frail and fallible human leaders, be they politicians or priests. Blind belief in the power of any single individual to bring about true change in any sphere, he argued, was simplistic and wrong, and led inevitably to disillusionment and disappointment. Surely this was the point in the sermon when a member of his flock was duty-bound to heckle ‘But what about that bloke called Jesus!’ Unfortunately, good manners triumphed and the leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans was able to continue his sermon. ‘Put not your trust in new leaders, better systems, new organisations or regulatory reorganisation’ he told the congregation at Canterbury cathedral. ‘They may well be good and necessary, but will to some degree fail. Human sin means pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake, and assuming that any organisation is able to have such good systems that human failure will be eliminated is naïve’.

Bishop Welby’s sermon reminded me of Max Weber’s famous essay of 1919 ‘Politics as a Vocation’ with its warnings against ‘infantile’ understandings of politics and its emphasis on the complexities of governing and the need to hold realistic expectations of what politics – and therefore politicians – can deliver. ‘Politics is’ as Weber maintained ‘a strong and slow boring of hard woods’ and one might argue that almost a century later the challenges of governing have, if anything, become far greater and more complex. And yet there was a nagging part of Bishop Welby’s sermon that left me disheartened, frustrated, and possibly even angry. It was, for me, as if the new Bishop had accepted the advice of Bernard Baruch to ‘vote for the man [or woman] who promises the least as they’ll be least disappointing’. Surely one of the key social roles of politicians and priests is to inspire, to promote hope, to make their communities believe they can deliver positive social change. Might it therefore be that in warning against ‘the hero leader culture’, Bishop Welby revealed his own weakness? In the sense that he seemingly does not understand exactly why certain social groups seem so willing to grasp ‘quick, easy and gratifying solutions’ to even the most intractable problems.

Bishop Welby suggests that people could only escape ‘cynical despair’ by acknowledging God and trusting in his power but if you’re living in poverty, and face a multitude of social challenges that conspire to limit your life chances from birth, then I can understand why individuals fall for the cheap tricks and empty promises of rogue politicians. Put slightly differently, instead of arguing that too many people look to politicians for simple and pain free solutions to complex and painful problems that simply do not exist, might it not be equally true to suggest that encouraging people to accept human fallibility and to trust on God is just a different form of expectation inflation that is almost guaranteed to fail – a ‘mere cruelty’ of a different kind?

Canterbury Cathedral, and the Portal Nave Cross-spire

I for one am actually quite glad that Barack Obama did not turn out to be Superman and Bishop Welby is surely correct that we should not set people or institutions up to the heights where they cannot do anything but fail. But it would be quite wrong to suggest that individuals cannot make a positive difference, or to deny that some politicians have in fact delivered on their promises, or that – when all is said and done – democratic politics generally delivers far more than most people seem to recognise. Welby concluded his sermon by quoting the Welsh poet and Anglican priest R. S. Thomas, from his poem Threshold, on the human need for communication with God,

‘I am alone on the surface / of a turning planet. What / to do but, like Michelangelo’s / Adam, put my hand / out into unknown space, / hoping for the reciprocating touch?

And yet once again my moral soul was irked by such platitudes; I could not help but think that what most humans crave is not so much communication with God but communication with each other. It is the increased social fragmentation that threatens humanity not some form of existential angst or theological breakdown. My concern is therefore not so much that the public demands too much of politics and politicians but that at many levels the public’s expectations are actually too low. Local elections, for example, are due to take place in the UK in a matter of days but have so far been met with a deafening silence in terms of public debate or interest. There seems little evidence of the blind faith or hero leader culture that Bishop Welby warns against in any of the 36 English and Welsh Councils that will be contested on 2 May. I’m not suggesting that one sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury has single-handedly dampened expectations that would otherwise have had the local election campaign buzzing across the country, but I am suggesting that the Bishop’s position is too simplistic. We actually need more trust in political leaders and more active community engagement at the local level alongside a measured dose of healthy scepticism about what our local political leaders can realistically deliver.

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. He was educated at a succession of Catholic schools and is still recovering from this experience. Author of Defending Politics (2012), you can find Matthew Flinders on Twitter @PoliticalSpike and read more of Matthew Flinders’s blog posts here.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only politics and law articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: Canterbury Cathedral and the Portal Nave Cross-spire. Photo by Hans Musil. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Katie

    ‘I could not help but think that what most humans crave is not so much communication with God but communication with each other.’

    My experience is that people like the idea of community much more than they like the experience, with all the selflessness and responsibility for others that it entails. I agree that it is right for us to have high standards for our politcal leaders rather than give up on them altogether, but perhaps the problem is more deeply ingrained within us than we would like to admit.

  2. […] This article was originally published on the Oxford University Press’ blog. […]

  3. […] article was originally published on the Oxford University Press’ blog, before being republished on the British Politics and Policy […]

Comments are closed.