Subscriber Says: We need to inject compassion into British society again

Ordinary people need to be confident enough to put their conscience first. 

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A response to Jason Cowley's essay on progressive Englishness, “England Rising”. 

A recent visit to an Amsterdam museum made me consider the role of public servants in the Windrush deportations. The museum is dedicated to Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation. It describes how people forged documents, printed underground newspapers and hid those at risk of deportation.

It tells the stories of ordinary people who ignored the rules and acted according to their conscience. Their everyday dilemmas – who they spoke to, where they shopped, what they wore, even how their hair-cut – had political, or deadly, implications.

The counterbalance to this is the many examples of officials who obeyed the rules even if they knew they were wrong. From Windrush, to the cover up of the Hillsborough failings, the withdrawal of income from disabled people, the support of torture by MI6 officers following 9/11 and the cruel disregard of vulnerable girls in Rotherham – the list goes on and on.

No doubt Home Office staff followed immigration rules but the implementation of instructions, with no apparent compassion or questioning, appears to be increasingly acceptable in modern Britain. Have we lost track of right and wrong, acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour? Whether people act out of fear for their jobs, their position in society or simply because conforming is easier than calling out iniquitous behaviour, these scandals just keep coming. We are not under occupation like the Dutch were, which should make it easier, not harder, for individuals to behave well. Maybe there are just a few dishonest individuals who are too weak, disillusioned or overworked to oppose the unfair rules or corrupt behaviour they come across. Or maybe there’s another explanation.

One of the impressive aspects of the Resistance Museum is that it does not demonise those who were inactive in opposing the Nazis, or turn the resistance fighters into heroes. It celebrates bravery and ingenuity but also acknowledges that not everyone is able, by temperament or circumstance to put themselves at such risk. Rather, the exhibitions explain that by understanding their moral dilemmas we can try to avoid the bigotry and insularity of the 1930s that led to the war in the first place. These attitudes are manifest in the exhibition and show how the ethics of museology are embedded in the presentation of the information.

It can be no coincidence that the most trusted professions are those with deeply rooted ethical guidelines; nurses, doctors, teachers, scientists. Ethics are so entangled with my own profession, collections conservation, that, for me, daily decision-making based on moral judgements is automatic. But conduct outside of the workplace – as parents, on trains and buses, in our leisure time – is seen as a question of personal preference. With increasing secularisation, the influence of religious teaching with its interwoven strands of “right and wrong”, has begun to unravel. Where do we obtain moral guidance now?

Maybe established professional ethics could provide a framework for discussion. It is not necessarily unethical for Facebook to gather information on us. It is the way it is done – method and motive – that is questionable. Each new revelation of mendacious behaviour is a shock, which is why Darren Jones’ response to set up a cross-party Parliamentary Commission on Technology Ethics could be a way out of the hand-wringing.

Similarly, in the quest for a new English progressiveness, Jason Cowley states that the role of moral leadership is crucial. We need more public debate on 21st century ethics, not just how to support whistle blowers, but how and why shoddy behaviour occurs in the first place. We seem to have lost the moral compass needed to navigate and underpin individual understanding of the public good. When “virtue signalling” is denigrated but self-interest and avarice rewarded, it can be no surprise that shared values become confused. Of course, the majority of people behave well, with compassion and a desire to do the right thing, within their own capacity. But it only takes a minor collective turning away, or lack of interest, for compassion to wither and accepted behaviour to become confused with indifference.

Ethics are a leadership issue for both the private and public sectors. Work and commerce need to be underpinned by values that are more than a list of principles on a website that no one looks at. They have to be rooted in everyday life with a collective understanding of the public good, or appalling transgressions, such as Rochdale, Windrush, and Hillsborough, will continue.

Helen Lindsay is a New Statesman subscriber and a heritage specialist.

Subscriber Says is a place for New Statesman subscribers to respond to articles they have read either in print or in digital. Please email letters@newstatesman.co.uk with the subject heading “For Web Editors: Subscriber Says”. Responses must be no longer than 700 words. We do not pay for letters and reserve the right to edit.​