Can mere law-makers lead?

I find myself wondering: in what sense does the government (of the U.K.) govern? I have never studied politics, so the better read may be able to educate me.

One of my themes in this blog has been that it is necessary to do right on a foundation of not doing wrong. For example Florence Nightingale’s rules about hospital design (do no harm), or Christopher Jamison on Finding Happiness by demolishing harmful thoughts.

In the field of mechanical engineering (where I claim more knowledge than in politics) a governor is a device that restrains an engine from rotating too rapidly. (It is a pair of balls attached to a shaft. As the shaft speeds up the balls are forced to rotate further from the shaft and this action then slows the shaft.) So maybe government wisely focuses on preventing things from changing too quickly: preventing excess. I think for example of the need to curb some excesses of the “free market” to protect those who will not benefit from it naturally.

Maybe this is what government should do, but there are a couple of problems. Firstly the government has its own excesses that it has not restrained – I think of the recent scandal about MP’s expenses. Secondly, it does not seem to think its role is just to restrict, but also to direct and to instigate change. According to the Daily Telegraph, since Labour came to power in 1997, 3,600 new offences have been created by Parliament. Even more astonishing is the fact that of these, no fewer than 1,036 can result in the imposition of a prison sentence.

Herein lies another problem. What we call the government is a legislature. It sees itself in a leadership role, however it’s main power is to make law so it seeks to lead in this way – and in a way that becomes increasingly constrictive. It can also lead by choosing how to raise taxes and where to spend those taxes. In our constitution the role of the executive is held by the Queen, but following constitutional reform she is not supposed to do anything on her own initiative but only in response to parliament’s acts.

So where does leadership lie in our nation? The prime minister seeks to act in an executive role, and to parallel the president of the USA, but does it work? I really do not see that legislation (on its own) is an effective way to lead. Furthermore it seems to me that our membership of the EU compounds this error.

Morally leadership does need to be about exercising appropriate honest restraint in a community in order to ensure that benefit is shared (which is like being a mechanical governor, and will include legislation). However leadership also needs the holding out of a vision for the future and the encouragement and support of people as they travel together towards that. My belief is that this is not about control: it is about leading an honest, altruistic, lifestyle and about “setting direction.”

So leadership is bigger than legislation, and in modern society we like to think that leadership comes through democracy. In other words it is not just some wealthy or educated elite who know how to lead, everyone can lead. This statement works best if we see leadership as being about setting an example and being responsible – not just giving directions.

There is much basis for this in Christian theology. The development of our parliamentary democracy has taken place in a society that has sought to be Christian, and travelled through that period of time (up to the 17th century) when Christian leadership in Britain was believed to be exercised by monarchs with “divine right.” Since then “the people” have sought to lead through parliament. I am a believer that God can and does speak through all people, and the promise after Pentecost of the presence of His Spirit in all people is a powerful indication that leadership can be through all: through a democracy and not just “top down.”

In this way the leadership of Britain is, historically and theologically, “topped and tailed” by God: a monarch who is required to be Christian (Protestant, in fact), and people who are also seeking to be agents of God’s leadership.

So Britain’s leadership is both powerfully implicit and vulnerable. In my previous article about Adam Smith I queried the moral assumptions underlying his economic theory. What were the assumptions underlying our parliamentary democracy? It seems to me that our unwritten constitution rests on the assumption that all will as Christians be seeking to follow God’s lead. If that is not so then indeed there will be a vacuum, and then who indeed will lead Britain?

1 thought on “Can mere law-makers lead?

  1. Today the government has announced that it is postponing the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, and abandoning plans to make identity cards compulsory for British citizens. The Conservative party are criticising the government, saying that they are incapable of making decisions about important policy matters. However if the government have been guilty of introducing too much legislation, then I commend them for having the courage to take the “do nothing” choice.

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