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2 February 2022

Boris Johnson’s morals matter – there’s no such thing as a “competent rogue”

Aristotle and Confucius knew that the character of a leader creates the culture around them.

By Julian Baggini

The return of the cynical political strategist Lynton Crosby, credited with winning the 2015 and 2017 elections, to Boris Johnson’s inner circle sums up just why his time in Downing Street has to end. Crosby is often described as machiavellian but a more fitting philosophical inspiration is the third century BCE Chinese philosopher Han Feizi. 

Feizi was a brutal political realist who rejected the dominant Confucian view that rulers needed to be virtuous. He argued that worthiness and holding power are incompatible. When your job is to get things done, all means possible should be used, but there are many things an upright leader would not do. Hence saying you can combine virtue and effective leadership is “just like saying one has both all-penetrating spears and impenetrable shields”. If you have one, you can’t have the other.

Few are as uncompromisingly pragmatic as Feizi. But the temptation to believe that efficacy excuses amorality is perennial. In recent years the allure of the competent rogue has won people over around the world, in Italy, Brazil, Hungary, the US and in the UK.

Johnson’s tenure at 10 Downing Street is a case study of why this is a terrible mistake, in any organisation, not just government. As Confucius explained in uncannily prescient terms, “If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. If, however, you guide them with Virtue, and keep them in line by means of ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves.”

The language of “ritual”, “rectify” and “virtue” may sound alien but the core sentiment is bang-on. Confucius, like Aristotle, saw that ethics starts with character. Rules and regulations are secondary because good people don’t need rules to constrain them and bad people just don’t follow them, as we’ve seen all too clearly. 

Leadership requires good moral character because when it is absent, people see no reason to be good themselves, no matter what the rules say. Think of all the vox-pops we’ve heard over the last few years when people have parroted versions of the argument “If the politicians making the rules don’t follow them, why should we?”

The corrosive effect of crooked leadership is even more poisonous within the government itself. In any organisation, when people see those at the top mocking any pretence of high standards, the message that it’s all a lie filters through. The character of the leadership becomes the character of the organisation, what we tend to call its culture. That’s why the culture of impunity at No 10 is intimately connected with the arrogant, amoral character of the Prime Minister.

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The now standard defence that Johnson’s little lies about cheese and wine don’t matter because he has made the right calls on the big issues simply isn’t true. Johnson erred on Brexit, trade and lockdowns precisely because he was being driven by ambition rather than values. 

Johnson’s successor needs to be a person of better character. Decent people can and sometimes do make bad leaders, but the morally vacuous never make good ones

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