I recently watched President Zelenskyy of Ukraine addressing the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. His courage, eloquence and character shone like a beacon. His speech clearly showed that he is a man of moral as well as political authority. While political authority is given, moral authority is earned. Effective leadership requires moral authority: political authority on its own is not enough. President Zelenskyy earns his moral authority through the way he is handling the huge crisis facing his country, by sharing his people’s hardships and dangers, by his willingness to risk everything, even his life, in the service of his people and by speaking up on their behalf in every forum that he can. He has their best interests at heart. Moral authority comes from a number of sources and influences both within and outside of ourselves but is recognised through who we are and how we act. Leadership guru Larry Sternberg succinctly and helpfully describes moral authority in this way:
Moral authority is not about having the power to force people to follow one’s lead. It is the ability to influence people through the virtue of one’s character, the strength of one’s example and the wisdom of one’s words.
President Zelenskyy indirectly raises important questions for our own democratic system. How much moral authority do Prime Minister and Cabinet have in their handling the large number of strikes currently disrupting the country? More specifically, does a Cabinet filled exclusively with millionaires and multi-millionaires have any moral authority when they try to negotiate the wages of some of the lowest paid in the country? They may have political authority, but do they have moral authority?
It is important to emphasise that this is not a party political issue because the leaders of all the main political parties are millionaires. Nor is it a personal attack on politicians who are millionaires, after all, they have offered to serve their country and are doing the task laid upon them by the British electorate. Nor is it an indictment of millionaires who have accumulated their wealth ethically. Rather it highlights two important questions. First, are we content with our political system as it is, where only the rich wield governmental power? Secondly, given that the political pendulum has swung towards the rich having the power, is it morally right that they should make decisions about the poorest in society?
So, firstly, are we content with our political system as it is? In 2015, American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky commented that America is a plutocracy masquerading as a democracy. In this, as in other respects, the UK is following her transatlantic sister. Why is it that today only millionaires and multi-millionaires are entrusted with the levers of power? It is all the more bewildering when, in announcing that from April, Members of Parliament will be awarded a salary increase of £2,440, the chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) added:
Our aim is to ensure that pay is fair for MPs, regardless of their financial circumstances, to support the most diverse of parliaments. Serving as an MP should not be the preserve of those wealthy enough to fund it themselves.It is important for our democracy that people from any background should see representing their communities in Parliament as a possibility.
In the West, economics trumps politics, whereas it should be the other way round. ‘Growth, growth, growth’ and ‘Halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt’ top the list of the vision of the two, most recent prime-ministers. While much is said about the well-being of the economy, little is said about the well-being of all the people. While political leaders show concern towards the poorest in society, the system they administer is obsessed by wealth which results in the commodification of the people the system is established to serve. People are de-humanised and regarded as economic statistics. Furthermore, it is likely that some of those who administer the system are trapped by wealth which explains the dominance of the narrative of wealth in our national conversations. Yes, just as many are trapped by poverty and cannot flourish as human beings, so, too, there will be some who are trapped by wealth which prevents them from flourishing.
As the narrative of wealth dominates our conversations, so too, people of wealth dominate the government. We are, in effect, a plutocracy: we are governed exclusively by the wealthy. Why is it that our political system only allows people of wealth to climb to the heights of the political ladder, despite the aspirations of the democratic spirit so clearly articulated by the chair of IPSA? They may not have been wealthy when they began their ascent, but it appears that they need to be in order to reach the higher echelons. There is a diversity of gender, cultures and skills in the Cabinet; there also needs to be a diversity of financial backgrounds which, in turn, would provide a greater diversity of employment backgrounds. Just as the diversity of gender and cultures makes it possible for wider groups of citizens to identify with their political leaders, a diversity of financial and employment backgrounds would increase that identification. This is not happening in the UK. How can this be addressed?
Turning to the second question, does a Cabinet of millionaires led by a multi-millionaire have the moral authority to make decisions about the wages of the lowest paid? For leadership to have moral authority, leaders need to be seen willing to take personal risks for their people. People need to be convinced that their leaders have their best interests at heart. Leaders also need to be able to identify with and share some of the hardships being faced by their people about whose lives they are to take decisions: there is little indication that, in this harsh financial climate and under the present system, our millionaire politicians can do this. In the corporate leadership of Cabinet government, the features of moral authority can be shared across the Cabinet: they do not all need to reside in one person. The fault, I believe, does not lie with the individuals who have offered themselves to serve, but it lies somewhere in the system which they are required to uphold.
Just a few weeks ago, many of us were celebrating Christmas. The story of Christmas tells of a God wanting to show his love and commitment so that people are liberated to attain their full human potential. The Christian story, which flows from and is contained in God’s act of love at Christmas, shows that moral authority comes from a willingness of a person to roll their sleeves up and identify with others. It also requires a willingness to risk everything, even one’s own life These are marks of moral authority, whether religious, non-religious or political. That is why Volodimyr Zelenskyy is highly regarded. Sadly, the political system in the UK does not, at this time, allow its leaders to shine in a similar way.
Image 1: Number 10
Image 3: ReelNews
Thank you Brian for a thoughtful and timely piece. We aspire to democracy, yet at every turn it seems to be being ever more eroded. Some deep is surgery needed in our system.
A controversial, but I think important, question is: to what extent does an unimaginably rich monarchy, entirely built on inheritance, affect our system? This is no comment on the evident qualities of our late Queen, or of our current King. However, systemically our government is ‘His Majesties Government’. I am not suggesting a republic (that is a related, but distinct conversation, and as we can see elsewhere, a republic can be just as plutocratic!) but unless we face this probing question properly, I’m not sure we can ever shake off the shackles of privilege which are currently endemic in such a system of state and government.
Perhaps that’s a matter for another blog…..!!
I’m interested in what you have to say here, Brian, and I too am completely bowled over by the moral authority of President Zelenskyy. When considering the difference between moral authority and political authority, I wonder if we could approach it from a different point of view? If for example, it continues to be the case, as seems likely, that only the very wealthy will have political authority, perhaps we could see a complete change to the make up of the upper house, and increase their right to overrule bills sent to them.
If we had in the upper house those who have worked in various fields, for example, education, or health, and they had the power to overrule the House of Commons, then perhaps the governments of the day would be more cautious in their approach. For example, there have been eight ministers of health in the past five years, and the same number of ministers of education during that period. My question would be how many of these are people with a background of work in those fields?
It seems to me that those who govern should govern with knowledge, and not simply as a step up within the relevant political party. It also seems to be ridiculous that we have 26 Anglican Bishops in the House of Lords, but no Roman Catholic bishops or to my knowledge, no former leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Protestant leaders. How much better would it be in terms of diversity if we had the leaders of all the major faiths in the country on equal terms in the upper house. You could apply the same argument to ministers of all kinds of departments, where people are appointed to very important posts in the government, but without any experience about the various things they now have to deal with. One only has to look at the extent of the strikes going on in our country at this time to realise that so many groups of workers simply feel that they are not represented where it really matters, and certainly not by people who know from past experience what the situation really is.
Of course, there would be difficulties in trying to find people willing to take up this work at the end of a long and industrious life, but on the other hand, it would at least mean that people would feel that they are understood in what they are asking.