Standards of Behaviour in Politics

High standards of behaviour in politics are needed, for public trust in government and to safeguard a country’s international reputation

Sleaze has become a problem in Britain (and elsewhere).  In December 1995, the BBC published an article on The sleaze that won’t go away, listing several scandals that had damaged the reputation of John Major’s government: notably the row about cash for questions.  In response, he launched the Nolan Inquiry that resulted in the 1998 publication of Upholding Standards in Public Life.  These were subsequently updated in the Final report of the Standards Matter 2 review in November 2021, in which The Seven Principles of Public Life were articulated as:

Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

Holders of public office should be truthful.

Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

These standards of behaviour in politics need to be monitored, as described in the report, and action needs to be taken against politicians who don’t comply.  The problem of sleaze hasn’t gone away, though.  Boris Johnson appointed a university friend to the Committee on Standards in Public Life in July 2021, presumably to soften its judgements, but problems continued to appear.  A month later, former Prime Minister David Cameron was revealed to have allegedly made around $10 million from lobbying for Greensill Capital.  And on 6 November 2021, with the Owen Paterson scandal, it was reported that “Boris Johnson’s personal approval rating has slumped to its lowest level on record after his botched attempt to scrap Westminster’s standards system and spare a Tory MP from being suspended”.

There are further specific issues which need to be addressed, if public confidence in politicians is to be improved:

●  Politicians should obey the law and follow the same rules as everybody else.  There was a storm of indignation about the ‘Partygate’ scandal, when Boris Johnson’s government failed to comply with painful lockdown rules that it had forced onto the population.  Several press reports explained the public reaction.

●  If a politician has declared adherence to an ideology or political approach (6.2.1), people are entitled to expect that this will be brought to bear in all that individual’s dealings.

●  They should try to keep promises and election pledges.  Any deviations should be justifiable and fully explained.  The BBC article, Nick Clegg regrets signing anti-tuition fees pledge, reported that “The Lib Dem leader and deputy PM said compromises had had to be made as part of the coalition deal.”  It is better for politicians to declare their objectives than to make specific promises which they may not be able to keep.  His political career, and the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, suffered hugely when he broke his word by voting for university tuition fees.

●  They should avoid using what was characterised in a Patterns of Power blog post as Lies, statistics and self-interest to mislead people.  It is possible to use selected particles of truth to give a totally wrong impression.

●  They need to be able to persuade people to accept policies, but they should avoid ‘spin’: communicating unpalatable messages in a way which would not draw criticism.  As described in an article by Andrew Marr, How Blair put the media in a spin, Britain’s ‘New Labour’ government, under the leadership of Tony Blair, was repeatedly accused of it.

●  Politicians with high standards of behaviour in politics would use robust arguments rather than ‘sound-bites’, as Ronald Dworkin argued in his book, Is Democracy Possible Here? (p.129).

●  They should not claim unnecessary or fictitious expenses.  The BBC published one egregious example in July 2018, under the headline Scott Pruitt resigns: The EPA’s chief’s long list of controversies.  It itemised gross misuse of public funds and conflicts of interest that brought Donald Trump’s administration into disrepute.

Politicians should be held to higher standards of behaviour than other people, because public trust in the political system is an important aspect of its acceptability and effectiveness.  There can be no justification for a politician to lie, other than (in rare cases) in the public interest – when the lie can be retrospectively defended without reputational damage.  If a politician is elected on a promise, and then breaks it, his or her continuation in office is completely delegitimised.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6333.htm.