The long Scottish sabbath
Written by Alex Massie
26 June 2020
According to Boris Johnson, “our great national hibernation is coming to an end”. Except for viewers in Scotland, of course, where, as ever, the darker times shall endure a little longer yet. The Scottish summer remains on hold pending the next review of lockdown restrictions. But even here, in the cautious north, there is the sense of something stirring. The people are restless; the people need a break.
This might seem a curious thing to note after nearly 100 days of collective inactivity but there we are. For many, the novelty of lockdown life wore off some time ago. Those who have been working as though these were normal times have earned a break but, oddly, so have many of those confined to quarters. I fancy the mental toll of lockdown remains under-appreciated. For everyone who has found the time to buy themselves with hobbies or a renewed commitment to exercise or some other project of self-improvement, there’s another who has found themselves oddly becalmed; listless and soaked in lethargy.
Tantalisingly, the holidays are in sight and yet, like Macbeth’s dagger, they remain out of reach for now. The hills and the highlands are calling but we may not answer their song just yet. This season we have been exiled from our native land and, for many of us, this has been amongst the hardest-borne crosses of the lockdown life.
No wonder there is an itching to escape to the country or the coast; a yearning to breathe freely and shake off the restrictions most of us have accepted with rather greater patience than politicians’ initially thought possible or plausible. If there is a consolation to be drawn from this moment, it may lie in a renewed appreciation of the good fortune enjoyed by those of us who live here. A pleasure denied is a pleasure doubly celebrated upon its next reacquaintance. So it will prove, I suspect, this summer in the highlands and on the islands; in the rolling hills of the Borders or the wide, shimmering, expanse of the Mearns. We shall, perhaps, see these landscapes freshly and not be so quick to take them for granted again.
Small comfort, for sure, for a hospitality industry begging for a chance to salvage something from this wreckage but this is a season for the smaller kinds of comfort. It will not be enough – how could it? – but it will be a tiny start.
Comparisons with war-time are otiose, not least because this has been a very different type of crisis. For many, far from putting shoulders to the wheel in the service of some great national endeavour you do your bit by doing very little at all. Your participation depends on you being a bystander. This too has been, I think, oddly discombobulating; we have been involved, but not wholly present.
Time then, soon, to get away from that and relax with simple pleasures. Family, of course, and friends too; countryside walks and picnics on the beach, a chance at last to recharge batteries and escape the mental grind of Covid life. Even the midges cannot spoil the thought of this.
Politicians can sense this too. As ever, their dance with the public is a messy, sometimes clumsy, affair in which each party takes their turn in the lead. Elected officials both nudge and reflect the public mood; the best of them take the public with them but only when that public is ready for the journey. Finding that balance is something felt more than it is consciously known or, heavens, planned. This week’s reversal by the Scottish government on its plans for schools in the next academic year is one example of that. Shifting from a presumption of part-time schooling to one, subject to terms and conditions, of something as close to normal schooling as possible is a reminder, if it were needed, that government is still predicated upon consent; if the people won’t wear it, it will not happen. In the final court of appeal, the people are sovereign.
This will be a strange summer nonetheless and a quiet one too; Scotland will reopen but only tentatively and on a provisional basis. No festivals and precious little foreign travel; it will be a summer closer in spirit to those of the 1950s than any we have known in recent decades. Indeed, there have been times during this enforced quietness when it has seemed as though the past three months have been one long, long, Scottish sabbath of the kind enjoyed – or endured – in years gone by. The theatres and the pubs have been closed; even the swings have been chained shut. It has offered, in this respect, a faint glimpse of how we used to be.
And this being Scotland, of course, even the prospect of summer at last comes with a price attached. As so often, Alasdair Reid’s famous lines spring to mind:
“It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sun struck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’
And sure, you will have noticed that just as summer starts, however hesitantly, the nights are already drawing in. But gather whatever rosebuds ye may, this July and this August too. For harder times – and winter – lie ahead.
There is a risk, though, that ethical leadership can be taken to mean things that it does not. It would be quite wrong to suggest that public service or voluntary work are somehow inherently ethical and private enterprise and profit making are not. The issue of ethics also comes into political discourse. It is easy to dismiss a political opponent or a political ideology as unethical, when in fact what I mean is that I do not agree with them or it.
That is not to say that all contexts and all ideologies are ethical. And anyone – regardless of context or ideology – who plays the game of comparing wrongdoing of one group with another in order to justify their own as lesser or in some way excusable, is not going to be very interested in ethical leadership.
Whether in business, politics, volunteering or public service, there are some red lines. There are things which society at large agrees are unacceptable; generally (but not always) it signals this by making them illegal. Discrimination, dishonesty, fraud, theft, genocide, cheating, hate crime, abuse: this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives a sense that some things cannot have any place in an ethical framework.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that the list is not constant. We need not look too far back in history to find a time when things that are now illegal were enshrined in statute, or endorsed by states and governments as legal. Rosa Parks spoke more powerfully on that subject than I ever could.
This raises an important balancing issue, namely that just because a legislature has a law in place, that does not mean in and of itself that it is ethical or just. Values do matter.
Ethical leadership is neither easy nor straightforward. It requires a clear set of values – and, crucially, a determination to adhere to them even when it might be difficult to do so – and a willingness to engage and to be challenged. It draws on a range of views, and respects perspectives and experiences. It accepts sacrifice in service of the common good. It shares power rather than hoards it. It recognises that more is achieved by collective endeavour than by individual effort alone.
But is it still worth the effort? There are examples throughout history – and plenty of current ones as well – of people and organisations and nations who succeeded by greater force, or by subterfuge, or by appropriating what belonged to others, or just by plain old-fashioned dishonesty and cheating.
It rather depends on your definition of success. If success is being first, being richest, being better, having more, whatever the cost to others, then ethical leadership will not be on your radar, except to the extent that it is annoying and might represent a hurdle to your objectives.
That said, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being first, being rich, being better or having more. Competition can be healthy, and ambition and desire for improvement have their place.
The Beveridge Report of 1942 was the foundation of the welfare state, a profoundly ethical set of propositions developed during a time of war. It was ambitious, radical and far-sighted, and destined to change the fabric of society and the health of nations. But in order to be better and have more, those who could afford to also had to give more.
We should also look back on people and organisations who apparently succeeded at the time, but later events proved otherwise. For instance, individuals who won sporting medals as a result of drug enhanced performances have since been stripped of their awards.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was enacted in the United States in response to a number of major accounting scandals, including Enron and WorldCom. It sets out responsibilities of a public corporation’s board of directors, adds criminal penalties for certain misconduct, and prohibits the wilful destruction of evidence to impede a federal investigation. Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 170 years in prison for operating the largest private Ponzi scheme in history. Nick Leeson, the rogue trader with Barings bank, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for his unauthorised financial transactions.
The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but grind they do.
So, if ethical leadership matters, how can you tell if it is being practised, as opposed to being discussed? I find these questions helpful:
- What are your core values?
- How are they expressed?
- How does your organisation and your board tell whether and how your values are being implemented?
- What do you do if they are not?
- Could your people describe what the values mean for them?
- What decisions can you point to that speak to your values as an organisation?
- What examples of ethical leadership do you celebrate?
Because surely we can do better than the argument that it is only wise to practise ethical leadership for fear of getting caught and being punished. The real benefit of ethical leadership is that it is most likely to produce sustainable outcomes, because it is designed to be of benefit to the greatest number of people. That in itself is a good definition of success.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here.