Bernard Trafford: Should we be worried that the public lacks confidence in politicians' moral leadership?

Journal columnist and Newcastle headteacher Bernard Trafford says we don't have to look to our politicians to set an example - we've got the Queen

John Stillwell/PA Wire Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II

Looking back is inevitable at the turn of the year. Recovering from Christmas excess, we scour the media for all those quizzes and reviews of the past year.

Casting my mind over the past year’s columns, I reckon I talked more about politicians and failures of leadership than anything else.

2014 was a poor year for many leaders. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un became reportedly so fat that he disappeared from public view. Vladimir Putin became officially a dangerous lunatic (though not necessarily at home).

French President François Holland became a laughing-stock after conducting an affair with an actress… by moped (unforgivably uncool). Closer to home, leaders of Britain’s major parties were twice upstaged, first by Alex Salmond who, despite losing the Scottish independence vote, is aiming for a Westminster seat in May.

Next came Nigel Farage, that cheeky, beery chappie who, notwithstanding his latest pig-ignorant gaffe of blaming M4 traffic-jams on immigrants, remains so high-profile as to cause Cameron and Miliband nightmares.

Thus it was amusing to read in the Sunday Times that political leaders rank low in the estimation of ordinary people in terms of their moral leadership. A recent survey suggested the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provide the best moral leadership for Britons, winning 34% and 30% respectively. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, managed just 15%, pipped by 17-year-old Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai’s 19%.

David Cameron managed just 8%: but he wasn’t the biggest loser. Nigel Farage won the negative (worst moral leadership) poll with 39%.

It’s weird. Most of us know dedicated MPs who work hard for the good of their constituents. Yet, when we look to Westminster, and with only five months until a General Election, it’s clear we cannot trust politicians to act on principle on a national scale, to do things that are right for this country, whether they are difficult things to achieve or easy.

Policy is driven entirely by what will win votes. Indeed, a by-product of the fixed-term parliament established by the Coalition (something I thought a good idea at the time) is that there is currently no legislation or policy-making going on. Tory MPs are even being encouraged to take a day out of Parliament in order to campaign.

So government’s not about protecting the country from financial disaster, whether you believe in combating the ongoing effects of the global economic slowdown by embracing Tory austerity or adopting Labour’s growth agenda. It’s all, and solely, about parties getting themselves elected.

As we embark on a New Year, should we be worried that the public lacks confidence in the moral leadership of politicians? I don’t think so. We have to elect them and I hope we all do our democratic duty by holding them to account, but we don’t have to like or trust them. I wish we could: but in our cynical modern political world that’s just too much to ask.

Conversely I’m cheered by the vote for the Queen and the Cambridges. HM doesn’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from: she doesn’t live with the trials and challenges of ordinary life faced by so many. But she does maintain a firm moral compass: she’s generous in praise of those who deserve it; and she and the top royals tirelessly promote good works and causes by acting as patrons, honouring events and raising their status through their very presence at them.

That is true moral leadership, and it’s pleasing that a newspaper poll endorses it, even in that relatively trivial format.

My hope for 2015 is that we’ll demand greater effectiveness and better behaviour from our politicians, but won’t feel betrayed when they disappoint.

For example and moral leadership we can look to others, such as the Queen: and, while Westminster squabbles, maybe ordinary people can work together to build a more just, tolerant and successful society.

Happy New Year!


Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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