It is 1887. Mandell Creighton, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge is faced with a weighty dilemma and it has caused him to call upon his editor, Lord Acton of Bridgnorth, Shropshire. How, he wonders, should one weigh the actions of those granted divine power by the Catholic Church? Creighton was a keen advocate of historiographical balance and accepting behaviours as a part of their historical context. But when attempting to negotiate the lives of Sixtus IV (a renowned plotter and someone perfectly at home to the odd bit of nepotism), Alexander VI, whose family name, Borgia, may ring a bell (a licentious, power-hungry conspirator) and Julius II (who Machiavelli himself described as ‘an ideal prince’) he was finding it hard to separate the men from their roles. How could he write of such corruption and nepotism in his history of the Renaissance papacy? Perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he stick to the details of their papal role and keep all the messy private lives out of it. He suggested as much to Lord Acton. The reply he received contained one of the most famous and oft-quoted lines about people in power:
‘I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong,‘ he wrote. ‘If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.‘
Power corrupts. The greater the power, the greater the tendency to corruption. Acton wasn’t the first to recognise this inverse relationship between integrity and power. In 1883, a religious writer, Robert Ingersoll wrote of Abraham Lincoln: ‘Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is give him power. This is the supreme test.’
In the piece, Ingersoll praises Lincoln by setting him up as the exception to the rule. In maintaining moral qualities of mercy and equality, Lincoln, in Ingersoll’s view, had dodged the bullet that just about everybody else could not.
Events across 2021, some obviously set in motion long before then, have given us plenty of opportunity to review the wisdom of these words. The leaders of the ‘free’ world have found themselves wanting: from Donald Trump’s open flaunting of the truth and his abuse of the power granted to him, leading to what almost amounted to a revolution last January; to the UK Conservative party’s ‘jobs for the boys’ approach to the pandemic and Boris Johnson’s complicity in repeatedly covering-up his party’s disregard for lockdown measures they imposed, it seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the powerful to maintain any kind of ethical integrity.
Perhaps the starkest and grimmest example of the terrible corrosive effect of power on humanity is in the ongoing investigations into Jeffrey Epstein which have led, thus far to his conviction (and death in custody) and that of Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of the notoriously corrupt Robert. I will leave aside the familiar, saddening fact that, in a case where the real inhumanity came from the actions of men, it is a woman, however guilty, that is the only one so far convicted. I would hope that her incarceration is the tip of the iceberg (although, I won’t hold my breath). The exposure of what amounted to a cabal of extremely powerful male paedophiles will only fuel the conspiracies of the QAnon brigade. But it should also make us look again at Acton’s words.
Power corrupts. Why? Is it that those who seek power are fundamentally flawed to begin with? That simply wanting to get into such positions suggests a lack of empathy or humanity? Jon Ronson’s insightful book, ‘The Psychopath Test’ suggests that the higher you climb, the more likely you are to come into contact with a psychopath, or the more likely you are to have such tendencies yourself. This idea is superbly satirised by Bret Easton Ellis and Mary Harron in his novel and her film of ‘American Psycho’. In the novel, the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is a prosperous empty shell of a human being, who is driven entirely by others’ perception of him. That, and an overwhelming desire to kill. Is that it? Are they all sociopaths or worse?
Is it more likely that they do terrible things because they think they will get away with it? It is a tragic and horrific fact that incidents of rape against women increase when society breaks down, for example in times of war. It is estimated that as many as 2 million German women were victims of rape in the last months of the Second World War. Perhaps, for the powerful, the laws and morals of society mean little. The Russian soldiers marching through Germany would certainly have had that power. Epstein himself clearly thought that he was untouchable, particularly after the slapped wrist handed out by the Florida State Court in 2008: a 13 month sentence, much of it as ‘work release’, and a plea bargain which meant 36 of the victims were never heard at the time. Video of Epstein unveiled in the Sky documentary ‘Epstein’s Shadow’, show him almost smirking as he is questioned. Donald Trump was open about how money and power meant sexual favours, famously taped in a campaign bus telling a reporter ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything; grab them by the pussy.’ Prince Andrew can say openly, on camera, that he never went upstairs at Epstein’s mansion despite there being photographic evidence that he was. And our own leader, Boris Johnson can say that he knew nothing about Christmas parties however unlikely that may seem. Oh, and he can also say that he spent the last two weeks ‘in this country…’ If that wasn’t a lie, then he needs to work on his delivery. He came across with all of the integrity of Paul Whitehouse in full ‘I will nick it’ mode.
Does part of the blame, then, lie with the media. Certainly, for a democracy to function, then politicians must be held to account. As Scottish activist Jimmy Reed said in 1999: ‘The task of a media in democracy is not to ease the path of those who govern, but to make life difficult for them by constant vigilance as to how they exercise the power they only hold in trust for the people.’ The media’s role is to hold the powerful to account, without favour or bias. A flourishing democracy has a well-informed people, and so the media should be without favour or bias. But what happens when alliances are forged between leaders and the media that is supposed to hold them to account? When the relationship between the media and the leadership is one of mutual benefit? Leaders who can refuse access to certain journalists, as many now do, are not being held to account rigorously. You don’t have to like Piers Morgan, but he had the Government hiding from his tenure on Good Morning Britain. Even the BBC, with its long tradition of impartiality, freed from the guiding influence of advertisers, has been subject to scrutiny recently, particularly regarding the supposed sympathy that outgoing political editor Laura Kuenssberg had for the incumbent PM.
Has 21st Century Western hegemony lost its moral compass? Are we just not going to church anymore and does this mean we are more selfish? I don’t think so – I certainly hope not. Richard Dawkins may not be the nicest human being but at the centre of his arguments for humanism is a core humanity, a decency, for want of a better word, which connects us all. What would it mean for us all if that were a myth? Is ‘The Lord of the Flies’ a true reflection of man left ‘un-guided’?
The root of the problem may be in the public education system from which so many of the powerful come. Friendships formed in the dorms of the most expensive schools become ‘networks’ for quick, easy, ‘trustworthy’ affiliations and mutual benefits which then influence national and global policy. Ideas about hierarchies of power and of the nature of society which are planted in the oak panelled corridors become embedded across the broader environment of the boardroom and cabinet offices. It is probably true to say that the powerful do not understand how most of us live and therefore have a different view of the consequences of their actions. If your best mate is a prince, you probably believe you are invincible. And if your old school friend is now the owner of a global media corporation, then a little chat over a round of golf will ensure that certain things don’t come to light, if you don’t want them to. It’s really not that different to the days of Pope Alexander VI is it?
It is, as Acton notes, all too easy to become corrupted by power. Perhaps John Steinbeck is right when he says that it is not power that corrupts but ‘fear…perhaps the fear of a loss of power.’ The strongest voices, both in major corporations and in political parties, are those that provide the data and formulate strategies which will keep them in power, or will protect shareholders’ investments, or their own liberty to act without censure. Integrity does not come into it. Perhaps it is true that, for these people, it is not the power that corrupts but the fear that they may lose it. So, as we move through the Christmas period and into the New Year, is it too much to ask for the powerful amongst us, those who are the captains of industry and those who lead us, to consider first and foremost, their humanity? To rediscover the moral compass that appears all too easy to ignore. To perhaps listen more to their hearts and a little less to their heads which have been stuffed with thoughts of self-preservation for way too long, or to at least try to resist the more offensive cravings of their genitalia. To strive to make decisions based on compassion, honesty, fairness and most pertinently, perhaps, a little selflessness?
If not? Well, again, Acton says it best: ‘Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.’ Let history, so beloved of Mr Johnson of course, be their judge.
Happy New Year…