The Arrogance of Power
This is the 10th anniversary of Tom Olsen’s death. I am greatly honoured to give this lecture bearing his name. When I look at the list of my predecessors I regard it as a particular distinction to be invited to speak tonight.
There is no greater threat to spiritual or physical freedom, which is the theme of these lectures than the Arrogance of Power, which is the title I have chosen. I shall be looking particularly at examples of power exercised by politicians, the media and lawyers. None of you personally need feel anxious that you will be the subject of comment tonight.
There are three quotations that come readily to mind when we talk about the Arrogance of Power. They will be familiar to you. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote 1st Lord Acton. “We are the masters at the moment” said Sir Hartley Shawcross the newly appointed Attorney General in the Labour government of 1945, “and not only at the moment,” he went on, “but for a very long time to come”. Finally “Only little people pay taxes,” said Mrs Leonora Helmsley wife of the American property tycoon in the 1990’s.
Let us turn firstly to the lawyers. William Penn was a Quaker. He was educated at Christchurch Oxford. He came under the influence of John Owen and was sent down for non-conformity in 1661. He went to Lincoln’s Inn and was then sent to Ireland to take care of his father’s Estate. He had all the self confidence of a rich young man. In the opinion of Mrs. Pepys he was “a most modish person and a fine gentleman”. He resolved to become a Quaker Preacher. In 1688 he was sent to the Tower for attacking the contemporary understanding of the Trinity as a fiction and denying the orthodox calvinist doctrines.
In 1670 the Quakers were locked out of their Gracechurch Street meeting house by soldiers. They met in the street outside where Penn preached to the crowd. As a result Penn and William Mead were indicted for riot; their trial reflects no credit on the judiciary.
There were 12 jury men. Bushell was their foreman. His name subsequently entered judicial history. The conduct of the trial was in the hands of Sam Starling the Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Howell Recorder, five Aldermen, two Sheriffs and a gentleman called Richard Browne.
Trouble started at once. The prisoners had taken their hats off out of respect for the court. The Lord Mayor asked who had allowed them to take off their hats. He ordered them to be put on again. One of the Officers replaced the hats on their heads whereupon the Recorder proceeded to fine Penn and Mead for contempt of court for wearing their hats in Court.
Witnesses spoke of a crowd and of Penn preaching but they could not identify what was said. One particular witness said he didn’t see Mead. The Recorder thinking to fill in the gap in the prosecution evidence asked Mead whether he was there. Mead said “It’s a maxim in our law that no man is bound to accuse himself” and added “why dost thou offer to ensnare me with such a question, doth not this show thy malice, is this like unto a judge thought to be counsel for the prosecution?”.
There then followed an exchange between the Recorder and Penn about where in the common law the indictment lay. At the end of it the Lord Mayor ordered that Penn should be taken away into the bail dock at the back of the Court. Mead then addressed the jury. The Mayor said “You deserve to have your tongue cut out”. Mead was also taken into the bail dock. The Recorder proceeded to sum up the case to the jury out of the hearing of the prisoners. When Penn appealed to the jury that he couldn’t hear, the Recorder said “Take them away to the hole; to hear them talk all night as they would, that I think does not become the honour of the court; and I think you the jury yourselves will be tired out and not have patience to hear them.”
The prisoners remained in the hole while the jury was sent away to consider their verdict. After and hour and half eight of the jury came down; four remained upstairs; When the court sent an officer for them, they came down. The bench made a number of threats to the four that had descended. The Recorder addressed himself to Bushell and said “Sir you are the cause of this disturbance and manifestly show yourself an abettor of faction. I shall set a mark upon you” and Robinson, one of the Aldermen made the same comment. The jury were then sent out again and returned after a considerable time. When asked whether Penn was guilty of the matter, the foreman said “Guilty only of speaking in Gracechurch Street”.
The Recorder refused that verdict. The jury demanded pen, ink and paper the court adjourned for half and hour. When the jury returned they handed in a piece of paper recording the same verdict of not guilty of riot.
The Recorder said they had to reach a verdict and told them that they would be locked up without meat, drink, fire or tobacco. The jury was sent off for the night without meat, drink, fire or tobacco or any accommodation; they didn’t even have a chamber pot between them. At 7 o’clock next morning the court sat. The jury again found Penn guilty of speaking in Gracechurch Street but not guilty of riot.
The jury were again addressed by the bench. Again they retired and again came back with the same verdict. The Recorder told Bushell he was a factious fellow and would have an eye on him. The Lord Mayor said to the jury “Have you no more wit than to be led by such a brittle fellow. I will cut his nose”. When Penn complained that the jury were being menaced the Lord Mayor said “Stop his mouth”, and ordered the gaoler to bring fetters and stake him to the ground. The Recorder said “Till now I never understood the reason of the policy and prudence of the Spaniards in suffering the inquisition among them; and certainly it will never be well with us till something like unto the Spanish inquisition be in England.”
The Recorder told the jury “You shall go together until you bring in another verdict or you shall starve. I will have you carted about the City as in Edward III’s time.”
The court adjourned until the next morning. The jury came back and again found Penn and Mead not guilty. Penn asked for his liberty. It was refused. He and Mead remained in custody because they had been fined for contempt of court. They were sent to Newgate Prison for non-payment of the fines. Today such arrogance on the part of the Bench would instantly be reported by the media and condemned by the public.
Four of the jury men were also imprisoned. They sought a writ of Habeas Corpus. In Bushell’s case, named after their ringleader, the jurymen submitted that a jury cannot be punished for its verdict. The Court upheld that view. Thus the sanctity of a jury’s verdict in English law was established. The right of a jury to bring in it’s own verdict in the face of a hostile judge has ever since been a brake on judicial arrogance. I wish I could say that today judicial arrogance has totally vanished.
May I give another example. John Perlzweig otherwise known as Robert Liversidge was an enemy alien. On 26th May 1940 the then Home Secretary directed that he should be detained. The power to detain was given to the Secretary of State by Regulation 18B: “If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe any person to be of hostile origin or associations and that by reason thereof it is necessary to exercise control over him, he may make an order against that person directing that he be detained.” Liversidge was so detained in Brixton.
On 14th March 1941 he issued a writ against Sir John Anderson and Herbert Morrison who were the Home Secretaries concerned. During the course of the civil proceedings for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment he sought details of the reasonable grounds upon which the Home Secretary had acted. All the lower courts held that the phrase “If the Secretary of State has reasonable cause” means “if the Secretary of State thinks he has reasonable cause” and that the only implied condition was that the Secretary of State acted in good faith.
Four of the Law Lords accepted that view. Lord Atkin was a liberal minded judge. In a well known speech he dissented. In his speech he said “I view with apprehension the attitude of judges who on a mere question of construction when face to face with claims involving the liberty of the subject show themselves more executive minded than the executive”.
Lord Atkin went on: “In this country amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent. They may be changed but they speak the same language in war as in peace. It has always been one of the pillars of freedom, one of the principles of liberty for which on recent authority we are now fighting, that the judges are no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any attempted encroachments on his liberty by the executive, alert to see that any coercive action is justified in law. In this case I have listened to argument which might have been addressed acceptably to the court of King’s Bench in the time of Charles I.
“I know of only one authority,” said Lord Atkin, “which might justify the suggested method of construction. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’. ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be the master, that’s all.’ After all this long discussion,” said Lord Atkin, “the question is whether the words ‘If a man has’ can mean ‘If a man thinks he has’. I have an opinion that they cannot and the case should be decided accordingly.”
Lord Simon, the Lord Chancellor, wrote in somewhat arrogant terms to Lord Atkin seeking to persuade him to withdraw part of his speech before delivery. Lord Atkin not unreasonably refused. It is now the better view that Lord Atkin was right and the other judges wrong.
Sometimes it happens that what appears to be the arrogance of lawyers turns out to be no such thing. In 1977 the Union of Post Office Workers resolved to call on all its members not to handle mails into South Africa as a protest against apartheid. Mr Gouriet was a concerned citizen. He needed the Attorney General’s consent to act as plaintiff to bring an injunction to restrain the Union. The Attorney General Sam Silkin QC refused. Mr Gouriet himself obtained an injunction. He then sought a declaration that the Attorney General had acted improperly and that he had wrongfully exercised his discretion in refusing to act as plaintiff. Lord Denning started his judgment as follows:-
“On the Saturday before last an ordinary citizen came to this court. He came, he said, on behalf of the public at large. He told us that a powerful Trade Union was breaking the law and was going on breaking it. He asked us to make an order restraining them from doing so. We made the order. We made it in the very words of the statute of the realm. Our order was effective. The Trade Union to it’s credit, obeyed it, so there has been no trouble. The breach of the law has been prevented. Yet the Attorney General came before us on the next Tuesday and speaking with all the great authority of his office, he rebuked us. He told us we had no jurisdiction to make that order”…
“What then does it all come to, if the contention of the Attorney General is correct: It means that he is the final arbiter as to whether the law should be enforced or not…
“Take warning” said Lord Denning, “from history not from a previous Attorney General but from a King himself. James II claimed that by virtue of his prerogative he could suspend or dispense with the execution of all penal laws in matters ecclesiastical. He had reasons which to him at least were most compelling. He desired religious toleration and civic equality but the people of England would have none of this prerogative. The jury showed that at the trial of the seven bishops Seven Bishops case 1688 12 State Trials 183 and at the very first opportunity Parliament enacted the Bill of Rights 1688. It declared:-
“That the pretended power of suspending of laws or the execution of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal.”
“Mercifully,” said Lord Denning, “our constitution has I believe provided a remedy. It is what I have already said. If the Attorney General refuses to give his consent to the enforcement of the criminal law then any citizen of the land can come to the courts and ask that the law be enforced. This is an essential safeguard for were it not so the Attorney General could by his veto saying “I do not consent” make the criminal law have no effect. Confronted with a powerful subject whom he feared to offend, he could refuse his consent time and time again. Then that subject could disregard the law with impunity. It would indeed be above the law. “This cannot be permitted” said Lord Denning. “To every subject in this land, no matter how powerful, I would use Thomas Fuller’s words over 300 years ago ‘Be you ever so high the law is above you’.”
The Attorney General not unnaturally was somewhat incensed. The case went to the House of Lords.
Lord Dilhorne who had been an Attorney General himself, poured scorn on the views of Lord Denning and said that the inference that Sam Silkin had abused or misused his powers was not one that should be drawn. There was no challenge, as Lord Denning, seemed to think, to the rule of law. The Attorney General had a wide discretion as to whether or not to lend himself to the proceedings and some observations made by Lord Denning in another case did not correctly state the law. The courts could not review the Attorney Generals decision. They let Lord Denning down quite lightly, Lord Edmund Davies said “that Lord Denning was unfortunately mistaken in his view”. The other Law Lords agreed. Even Homer nods.
Let us not think arrogance is a modern phenomenon. Hubris and Nemesis are familiar words in Greek literature.
Plato in his Republic traced the stages by which democracy was transformed into tyranny. An excessive desire for liberty at the expense of everything else was what undermined democracy and created a demand for tyranny. A democratic society in its thirst for liberty might fall under the influence of bad leaders. The minds of the citizens became so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint was resented as intolerable and in their determination to have no master they disregarded all laws written or unwritten. That was the route from which tyranny sprang.
Democracy in Greece, Plato believed, arose when the rich failed to notice the growth in power of the poorer classes and were eventually overthrown. It was a society in which all citizens had equal political opportunity to hold public office, regardless of their fitness for it and had the freedom to do as they wish. Pleasure became the test which determined what each man was to do. There was thus a lack of respect for authority and the rule of law; and as a result a democracy lacked cohesion and tended to anarchy. the democratic man was a kind of hedonist believing himself to be free but totally at the mercy of his ephemeral impulses.
The ordinary citizens looked for a popular leader. In due course he came to gain absolute power and could only be removed by assassination. The tyrant was a man who starting out as a democrat, fell totally in the grip of a master passion, and absolute power. He became a regular megalomaniac and readily fits into our concept of arrogance of power.
Plato describes how in a tyranny the leaders rob the rich, keep most of the proceeds for themselves and distribute the rest to the people. The mob will do anything he tells them and he gets rid of opposition by murder, exile, execution, and he redistributes land. At the beginning he has a smile and a kind word for everyone. He says he is no tyrant and makes large promises public and private. He puts on a generally mild and lenient air.
When we consider how some modern dictatorships exist it is clear that nothing much has changed.
Plato’s answer to the question “who should rule” was that a specially trained group of intellectuals should do so. That was described as aristocratic from the Greek word Ariston and Kpatos meaning ruled by the best. He envisaged a system of tests and training partly physical, partly intellectual and party moral; having passed those tests there would be further training in the abstract sciences. This system was justified on the basis that in absolute power, ruling is a skill just as medicine is a skill for which people had to be properly trained. Plato’s theory about the absolute standard of goodness meant that the ruler would not be imposing his own personal standards on the other members of society but directing their behaviour in those ways he knew to be right. The best that can be said about this theory is that arrogance was never intended to play a part.
The practical objection to Plato’s argument was that even if it is admitted that ruling is a skill, individuals differ in their ability to exercise such skill. Nor does it follow that to give a ruler absolute authority means that authority will be exercised either properly or with skill. It was Plato’s belief that knowledge of the good would necessarily lead to virtuous behaviour. We can call this naivete run riot.
Whereas Plato was concerned with establishing the perfect society Aristotle tended to confine himself to a detailed examination of actual Greek States with a view to discovering what might be the best or most balanced form of Government. While Plato conceived laws by which the rulers imposed order on the classes, Aristotle tended rather to encourage citizens to play an active role in the running of the state. He examined different kinds of democracies and oligarchies and the conflicting claims of such states and monarchy. He argued that the latter, monarchy, is theoretically the ideal form of Government on the ground that the ruler of such a constitution would be superior in wisdom and virtue to all of the citizens i.e. a god among men. It is astonishing how topical that question is today.
Because no such individual could be found he believed in a constitution which combined the best elements of democracy and oligarchy, with the participation of as many citizens as possible, because those citizens who are politically active necessarily possess the leisure, wealth and property which are essential in an ability to govern. He never considered arrogance as part of the exercise of power.
John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” said: “The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle. That principle is that the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self protection. That the only purpose by which power can be rightly exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will, is to prevent harm to others… The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is of right absolute. With himself over his own body and mind the individual is sovereign”. Mill was clearly conscious of the power of the state and the part that arrogance played in its exercise.
Let us not forget that in everyday life our freedoms are constantly eroded not only by the all powerful but also by those little people who have the authority to direct and control our affairs.
John Vaizey, Professor Lord Vaizey, one of the most distinguished economists of our time and the first to consider and write about the “Economics of Education”, was during the war in his mid-teens, confined to hospital, paralysed for most of the time. In 1959 he published “Scenes from Institutional Life”, his story of that time. It is immensely moving. In the last chapter he asks “Why?”.
He wrote “I think I have written what I have because I wanted to force myself to live through experiences that were so dreadful to me that they were entrenched in my own mind and made me often anxious and unhappy. There are two major reasons why a book of this kind had to be written. Firstly, because much medical treatment seems to me to ignore much of what is the essence of the case – that the patient is a human being whom bugs or accident have temporarily deprived of part of his normal humanity and the purpose of the medical treatment is to restore humanity.
“Instead people walk out of hospital deprived of humanity but with a leg or an arm that is a masterpiece of applied engineering… all institutions, all social organisations impose a pattern on people and detract from their individuality. Above all it seems to me they detract from humanity. Institutional life is profoundly limiting, it distorts peoples values, above all it reduces their horizons. Everything in our social life is capable of being institutionalised.”
Florence Nightingale wrote:- “It may seem a strange principle to enunciate as a very first requirement in a hospital that it should do the sick no harm”.
“The same is true of all the other institutions”, wrote John. “The cruelty and callousness that prevails in many institutions which ostensibly are humanitarian, and well meaning, spring in part from their isolation where people forget that they are people and become Sisters, Doctors and Warders.”
He went on “Their unnatural hierarchy represses the individualism which is the main spring of humanity. Further in institutions the immature and unstable are to be found in positions of control and the result is that they mask their insecurity and insufficiency with rigid rules and authoritative discipline. “Above all,” wrote John, “I suspect the neurotic environment magnifies neurosis and minimises the tendencies to normality and as a result people tend unconsciously to be aggressive and cruel.
But it is important to learn that within each of us, especially the dedicated, cruelty, insensitivity and stupidity clamour for expression. The evil that men do lives after them in the lives of others and nowhere is this more true than in institutions for the care of others.”
John’s view vividly illustrates one of the less attractive features of modern life, an arrogance which feeds on vulnerability. But it goes wider than that.
There exists, does there not a Nanny syndrome? “Nanny know best”. What Douglas Jay (later Lord Jay) described when he said “The gentlemen in Whitehall really do know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves.” A splendid modern example is the hospital Trust who recently banned a baby beauty contest in aid of hospital funds because they considered such a contest not to be politically correct.
Let me now turn to the media who may develop their own particular brand of arrogance as a result of the power they wield over public opinion.
Alfred Charles William Harmsworth was born in 1865. He started a magazine “Answers to correspondence” in competition with “Titbits”. He launched “Comic Cuts” and “Illustrated Chips”. In August 1894 he bought the “Evening News” and two years later in May 1896 he published the first issue of the “Daily Mail”. It was described by Lord Salisbury as produced by office boys for office boys. A good example of both intellectual and social arrogance. In June 1904 Harmsworth became Sir Alfred Harmsworth Bart and less than two years later when Arthur Balfour resigned he became Lord Northcliffe.
He had in November 1903 started the “Mirror”, which was a disaster. It was relaunched as the “Daily Illustrated Mirror”. In May 1905 he bought the “Observer” and when “The Times” was up for sale in March 1908 also bought that. He sold the “Observer” to Waldorf Astor in 1911. His criticism of the Government’s handling of the war and in particular the campaign in Gallipoli where he had an alliance with a young Australian journalist called Murdoch, was such that the then Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, proposed to the Cabinet that the “Daily Mail” should be closed down.
The relations between Northcliffe and Lloyd George was one of wariness, mutual respect and periodic hostility. He told Lloyd George he would break him if he continued to interfere in the strategy of the Generals. Lloyd George’s attitude was that “he would as soon go for a sunny evening stroll around Walton Heath with a grass hopper as try and work with Northcliffe”. He did however ask him to go to America in 1917 to head a British War Mission there. When Northcliffe returned he was given a Viscountcy for his work. It was thought Lloyd George offered to make him Air Minister which Northcliffe turned down.
The war came to an end. Lloyd George called a general election. Northcliffe refused to give the coalition his backing unless he knew definitely in writing the personal constitution of the Government so that he could approve it. Lloyd George dismissed the idea with contempt. Northcliffe issued a pamphlet called “From War to Peace” dictating the peace terms which he, Northcliffe, said should be imposed on the Germans. It was generally believed that Northcliffe had insisted that he should be one of the peace negotiators at Versailles.
Lloyd George’s attitude to Northcliffe is best summarised in a debate over the handling of the peace negotiations in the House of Commons. Talking of Northcliffe he tapped his head suggesting that Northcliffe was not quite all there and went on: “Still I am prepared to make some allowance. Even great newspapers will forgive me for saying so, that when a man is labouring under a keen sense of disappointment, however unjustified and however ridiculous the expectations may have been, he is always apt to think the world is badly run”.
“When a man has deluded himself,” said Lloyd George, “and all the people, whom he ever permits to go near to him, help him into the belief that he is the only man who can win the war, and he is waiting for the clamour of the multitude that is going to demand his presence there to direct the destinies of the world and there is not a whisper, not a sound, it is rather disappointing, it is unnerving, it is upsetting”.
Then the war is won without him; there must be something wrong. Of course it must be the government. Then at any rate he is the only man to make peace. Only people who can get near to him constantly tell him so, so he publishes the peace terms and he waits for his call. “And,” said Lloyd George, “it does not come”.
Northcliffe never went to Versailles. Thereafter his illness started to take control. His eccentricity grew; by 1922 when he died he was a spent force.
Max Aitken subsequently Lord Beaverbrook was no less a titan than Northcliffe, no less arrogant, no less a seeker for or wielder of power. He was not only a powerful newspaper proprietor. In May 1940 at the age of 61 he became a successful Minister of Aircraft production and a member of the war cabinet. In the first world war, he had been Minister of Information and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s the “Daily Express” and the “Sunday Express” increased their circulation at the expense of the “Daily Mail”.
In 1923 they acquired the “Evening Standard”. Beaverbrook expressed his view about press power in these terms. “When skilfully employed at the psychological moment no politician of any party can resist it. It is a flaming sword which will cut through any political armour. That is not to say that any great newspaper or group of newspapers can enforce policies or make or unmake governments at will, just because it’s a great newspaper. Many such newspapers are harmless because they do not know how to strike or when to strike. They are in themselves unloaded guns.
“But”, said Lord Beaverbrook “teach the man behind them how to load and what to shoot at and they become deadly. It is only genius which can so load and point. The risk for its control are therefore limited seeing that genius is rare and this is as well; for so great is the potency of the weapon that if it ever fell into the hands of a thoroughly unscrupulous man of genius there is no limit to the harm is might do.”
Is there a better definition of the arrogant exercise of power? Was he perhaps describing himself?
By 1930 Beaverbrook was less than enthusiastic about Baldwin and the Conservative Party. The remedy for the ills of the day was obvious to him. It was wholehearted protectionism – a tax on foreign wheat and meat coming into England, sometimes known as Empire Free Trade or Imperial Preference. In July 1929 Beaverbrook had launched the Empire Crusade. There were a series of bye-elections in which an Empire Crusader was put up against the official Conservative Party.
In 1931 there was a bye-election at St George’s Westminster due to the death of Sir Laming Worthington Evans. It was one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. Beaverbrook put up a candidate Sir Ernest Petter who was a Conservative industrialist. The official Conservative candidate Moore-Brabason said he couldn’t support Baldwin and withdrew. Baldwin was only just persuaded by Chamberlain not to resign but to defer his resignation until after the bye-election. There was great reluctance on the part of candidates to act as the official Conservative candidate. In the result Duff Cooper, who had lost his seat at Oldham in 1929, came forward.
Lord Rothermere, who was Northcliffe’s brother and running the “Daily Mail”, joined Beaverbrook in support of his candidate and in the attack on Duff Cooper. Baldwin fought the campaign on the issue of press dictatorship. On 20th March the bye-election was held. Duff Cooper got 17,242 votes: Petter 11,532. However, it was Baldwin’s speech on 17th March at the Queen’s Hall about the behaviour of Beaverbrook and Rothermere which is now part of history.
He said: “The newspapers are not newspapers in the ordinary acceptance of the term. Their end is propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes of two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning by putting sentences apart from the context, suppression and editorial criticism of speeches which should not be reported in the paper… What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power but power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. It is perhaps the best known critique of the arrogance of power to be found.
The only recent change and that for the worse in the exercise of power by the media is the invasion of personal privacy. Gladstone retained his reputation as a formidable statesman until his 80’s not withstanding his interest in prostitutes of which the public were unaware. Asquith, Prime Minister in the first World War until 1916, carried on an obsessive correspondence with Venetia Stanley. She was a contemporary and great friend of his daughter Violet. Much of this correspondence was conducted during Cabinet and other official meetings. Beaverbrook cynically wrote of the Prime Minister that he was “dreaming of his piece in war”. But none of this information was vouchsafed to the public.
While much was published about Lloyd George, particularly relating to the honours scandal, scarcely a word appeared about his long time mistress Frances Stevenson. We all know now about the affair which Robert Boothby, Lord Boothby had with Lady McMillan but no one reading the national papers then would have learnt of it; any more than they did of King Edward VIII’s affair with Mrs. Simpson until the Bishop of Bradford made his famous sermon from the pulpit. We are entitled to ask what if anything we have gained from the invasion of personal privacy not only of public figures but of private citizens as well.
We shall soon have our own Bill of Rights. While it’s form is a matter for debate, a right to privacy will be one of its major provisions. It will inevitably become the law of the land. For opponents to seek to continue to play Canute is neither very practical nor particularly heroic.
What can I say about politicians? They are perhaps in a class of their own when we discuss arrogance.
In 1945 Harold Laski was a distinguished Professor. He was Chairman of the National Executive of the Labour Party. The word Spin Doctor had not yet been invented. The European War had come to an end and the Three Power Peace conference was due to take place at Potsdam. The result of the General Election was not then known. The Prime Minister, Churchill, had invited Attlee, then leader of the opposition, to accompany him to the meeting. Laski objected and said so publicly. “If Mr. Attlee were to attend the conference at Potsdam it would be considered essential that he did so only as an observer.”
Attlee was short with Laski. He wrote to Churchill “There never was any suggestion that I should go as a mere observer. The Chairman has not the power to give me instructions nor do his remarks to a press correspondent constitute the official authoritative instruction of the Executive Committee of the Labour Party.”
Far from withdrawing Laski made a series of speeches emphasising his own authority and that of the Committee over which he presided.
There was a further challenge by Laski. After the result of the General Election was known he wrote to Attlee telling him that he Attlee could not accept the King’s Commission until the new Parliamentary Party had met to elect a leader. Attlee sensibly took no notice. This was by no means the first challenge to Attlee’s authority. When the coalition broke up in the summer of 1945 and before the General Election Laski had written to Attlee in these terms:- “The continuance of your leadership is a grave handicap to our hopes of victory in the coming election. You should draw the inference that your resignation of the leadership would now be a great service to the party. Just as Mr. Churchill changed Auchinleck for Montgomery before El Alamein so I suggest you owe it to the party to give it the chance to make a comparable change on the eve of the greatest of battles”.
On any view it wasn’t a very percipient forecast of the general election result in which Labour under Attlee’s leadership had a landslide victory. Attlee dealt with this arrogant suggestion in his own inimitable style. He would not have tolerated spin doctors. “Dear Laski” he wrote, “Thank you for your letter, contents of which have been noted. C.R. Attlee.”
So much for some examples of the arrogant exercise of power.
The right of those in power to express their views for the benefit of society generally, though subject to their particular discipline individually is not to be doubted. But how do we distinguish between the proper exercise of power and power exercised arrogantly. The power of the leader of a Church or Sect is supreme and undoubted. Could it ever be suggested that the exercise of that power comes within our definition of arrogance. To believe in a particular faith is to exercise a freedom. The freedom. The exercise of that power in relation to an individual who has the ability to exercise judgement cannot be faulted.
But what of a person who has not reached the age of judgment or whose faculties are not sufficient to enable him to exercise that judgement? To persuade a child to join a particular faith is to exercise a power no doubt with the best of intentions. But it is implicit in that act that the persuader is convinced that that particular faith is supreme to all others – Why is that not an arrogant view? Is it enough that it is thought to be for their benefit? If so how then does the question of freedom, spiritual or physical stand?
Next how do we distinguish between those who show arrogance and those who do not? Mandela, Denning and Attlee are essentially free of criticism in this respect. Churchill’s view about Attlee we can ignore. When told that Attlee was a very modest man he is reputed to have said he has a great deal to be modest about. Is it simply humility? Is it charm? Is it the better ability to conceal their arrogance? It certainly is not as Plato would like us to think that evil is due to lack of knowledge and that if people can discover what is right they will never act wickedly.
One thing is certain. All of us who exercise power must recognise that arrogance is not just a state of mind. It is also the manner of its exercise which so often gives rise to complaint.
And is it always for the worse? The French believe in their superiority as a nation. No one could epitomise that better than General De Gaulle. Everyone but the narrowest Francophobe would recognise his immense contribution to the glory of France both during the war and in the years thereafter, particularly in relation to Algeria.
There is a historical view that those who behave in this way eventually get their comeuppance. Their fall from power is ever as great as their climb and such reputation as they enjoyed is for ever thereafter tarnished. Do we need to look further by way of example than the downfall of President Nixon, His AG, John Mitchell, Haldermann or Ehrlichman? But sadly this is not a universal truth.
There are no simple answers to the problems of where the line is to be drawn. Are the proprietors of today’s media more or less powerful than the Beaverbrooks and the Northcliffes? Do they exercise that power more wisely? Do lawyers today show more humility than Lord Denning or Lord Atkin? Why do the spin doctors of today display such an arrogance? Should they not be treated like Attlee treated Laski and why do the media allow themselves to be manipulated by them. On these thoughts we do well to ponder. Perhaps in the end it is not so much the heart as the soul which distinguishes between humility and arrogance.
Finally it is worth recording what happened to two of the authors of those arrogant statements to which I referred at the beginning of this lecture.
Hartley Shawcross’s Labour Government was voted out of office in 1951. The Conservatives held power for the whole of the next 13 years. He himself was never again to hold public office. Mrs. Helmsley was prosecuted for tax evasion arising out of her property transactions. She went to prison. She was released in January 1994 having served 21 months.
As St Matthew said “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”