Speech To Fund Raising Lunch For St Richard’s Hospice
Speech

Evesham Golf Club

SEVEN DEADLY SINS RE-EXAMINED, OR WHY POLITICIANS ARE SERIAL SINNERS

It is a real privilege to be invited to play my own modest part in the magnificent effort to build a new St Richard’s Hospice. The hospice was, of course, founded in my constituency at Droitwich and is named after the town’s patron saint.

He is a great model for a hospice. As one biography puts it,

“Many miracles of healing were recorded during his lifetime, and many more after his death. Richard was deep in the hearts of his people, the sort of saint that anyone can recognize by his simplicity, holiness, and endless charity to the poor.”

Miracles, charity. Two words that sum up the hospice movement – a great miracle of love that depends on charity.

It was St Richard’s prayer on his death bed that included the great words,

“O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly,
Day by day."

Like all great thoughts, it’s simply expressed, and sinners like we politicians are supposed to be should certainly pray those words with feeling.

Sinners we may be – but not quite for the reasons our critics think.

We’ve never been held in particularly high regard, which is healthy. In a real democracy we should not venerate politicians or put them on pedestals – we MPs need to be reminded that we are mortals with the feet of clay like everyone else.

But there’s been something in the criticism recently that has turned a bit nasty. A Daily Mail editorial in July this year said:

“Their duties are less than onerous, their salaries generous, their perks and allowances lavish and their pensions the envy of the nation, but still MPs want more. This morning they leave Westminster for their summer holidays and will return 80 days from now, on October 10. Nice 'work' if you can get it but what should worry this pampered breed is that they won't be missed.”

And a Daily Telegraph columnist began a piece on the NHS with this gratuitous attack:

“Isn't it time MPs were more scrutinised? They are off on another three-month holiday, their pensions are among the best in Britain, they receive generous petrol allowances, first-class tickets to their constituencies, subsidised canteen food and second homes, free central London parking, and, in the case of the Prime Minister, wonderful holidays from Italy to the Bahamas. If the House of Commons were a business, they'd cut the number of MPs in half, increase the sitting hours and slash their expenses.”

I wrote to both papers with what we describe as a detailed rebuttal. I can send copies to anyone who’s interested!

To be fair to the Daily Mail, I did get a reply from the Deputy Editor that acknowledged some MPs probably worked fairly hard from time to time. But from the Daily Telegraph columnist, only the briefest acknowledgment in response to the points of fact on which I corrected her.

Well, I’m not giving up the battle, and when I read a load of ill-informed nonsense in a national paper, I will wage war on the author, unmercifully.

You see, all these attacks are making me angry. Angry because they are wrong, ill-informed and prejudiced. Angry because they come from a breed that really is pampered. Angry because I find them deeply depressing. And angry because they undermine people’s trust in the very democratic process.

And then I thought, is it good to feel so angry? After all anger is one of the seven deadly sins, isn’t it?

And I reflected that I often get angry – angry at the injustices of the world – global injustices like the unfair trading rules, national injustices like the tiny public funding for hospices, local injustices like the proposed downgrading of Evesham hospital and individual injustices like the appalling impact on vulnerable people of the catastrophic errors of the tax credits system.

I believe I need to get angry to be effective in fighting these injustices – so is anger for a politician really a mortal sin or part of the job requirement? In the context of the seven deadly sins, I looked up the formal definition:

1. “Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath.”

But the love we should feel for our fellow humans should translate into anger at injustices they experience.

This set me thinking – is sinning really a sin for an MP? And I started analysing the other six deadly sins.

THE OTHER SIX SINS

2. “Pride is excessive belief in one's own abilities that interferes with the individual's recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.”

Vanity and politicians do tend to go together a bit. Do you remember the great Hilaire Belloc poem?

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged,
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

Yet it is essential to have pride in one’s work – pride in nation, pride in achievement. It is a double edged sword indeed, but no politician can survive without a degree of purposeful pride.

3. “Envy is the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation.”

But should we not look around the world, and be constructively envious of the attributes of others that we could work towards?

I do desire for my constituents the best – and I can often only tell what that is by looking around the world at what others have, to know what the best really is.

For years we deluded ourselves that the NHS was the best health system in the world, when in reality it had been overtaken decades ago by other countries. I am envious of the better systems others enjoy – and I would like to see that excellence replicated here.

4. “Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.”

Well, this is one that does get politicians into a bit of trouble from time to time. Whether it’s moments of madness on Clapham Common, or the sucking of toes dressed in Chelsea strip, you’ve read all about it.

But you must feel strongly about the things you want to achieve. You may think it’s stretching things a bit to say I lust after a better world – but I do. Politics needs a bit of passion.

5. “Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or Covetousness.”

I think you can probably work out where I’m going with this one - I am greedy for the needs of my constituents, greedy for peace, a better environment and all the other things for which I am working.

6. “Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.”
This is a really interesting one. We now live in a hectic and over-busy world in which politicians are expected to have an answer for every problem.

But often in politics things can’t be rushed and taking time is the best policy – a bit of sloth in rushing to judgement can often be a good thing. Media clamour for instant answers led to the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Child Support Agency. Need I say more?

Often, the trickiest knots can only be unravelled if given time. Rushing the fences in Northern Ireland or Kashmir, for example, was never the right response to historically intractable issues.

A bit of honest sloth is often very desirable.

And so I come to number 7, with six deadly sins looking rather less mortal. And here I come unstuck.

7. “Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.”
This is a tricky one and reminds me of the joke about politicians and supermarket trolleys,

“What’s the difference between an MP and supermarket trolley?
“You can get the same amount of food and drink in both, but a supermarket trolley has a mind of its own.”

Not fair, but it makes me laugh.

No, I think gluttony is probably an unredeemable sin we should avoid.

THE SEVEN HEAVENLY VIRTUES

And, on the positive side, there are said to be seven heavenly virtues – faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance.

I won’t go through them all, except to say that faith, hope, charity, fortitude and justice are pretty obviously necessary qualities for an MP.

Prudence has a special place in the heart of the Chancellor, of course.

And as for temperance? Cheers! This is the flip side of gluttony and not a virtue all of us practice.

So there we have it – seven sins of which six seem pretty essential qualifications for the life political, and seven heavenly virtues of which at least six seem to be prerequirements for any aspiring MP.

THE EIGHTH DEADLY SIN

Have you noticed anything missing? There seems to be one glaring omission from the sins and virtues that provokes most comment about MPs. An eighth deadly sin.

Let me give you a hint with another old joke – “How do you tell when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.” Amazingly, deceit is apparently not a deadly sin and truthfulness not a heavenly virtue, but I do recall something about false witness in the Ten Commandments.

Now I get really controversial. Few politicians ever lie. Lying is not a good idea – you get found out - but being selective with the truth is a great one!

Missing out the bit of the argument that doesn’t suit your case is the usual practice. Am I proud of this? No, not particularly, but in our defence, I’m not actually sure that people always want the truth.

I tried to explain to one constituent, truthfully, that I just couldn’t find the time to attend the meetings of a particular all-party group because there were now literally hundreds of these groups, all of which mattered to one or more of my constituents, and there weren’t enough hours in the week to get to them. She was furious. I wish I’d used the usual subterfuge of “doing my best to attend whenever possible.”

And there’s the story about a troublesome constituent who wrote a letter demanding his MP ring him immediately he got the letter. The letter arrived during an all-night sitting, so the MP rang at about 4am. The constituent had got what he demanded and never troubled the MP again.

But on a serious note, misleading by partial truth is a very sinister practice – and a possible example has only just come across my desk. I had a call from a former Tory MP, furious with Tony Blair over his answer to my PQ about Evesham hospital back in July.

This is the exchange on 20th July. I asked:

“Given the substantial extra funding that is going to the South Worcestershire primary care trust, why is it proposed to close wards and sharply reduce services at Evesham community hospital, in direct contradiction of Government policy?”

The Prime Minister’s reply concluded,

“… it is worth highlighting something that he implied, which is that there has been a substantial increase in funding—[Hon. Members: "Where is it going?"] I shall say where. The funding is going into the £87 million private finance initiative Worcestershire royal hospital, which is now completed and operational, and into the 1,800 more nurses, 240 more consultants and 140 more doctors. In other words, it is going into improve health care services.”

Well of course the PFI hospital, because of its very high operating costs, is part of the problem, not the answer, so here was one partial truth.

My caller’s point was different. He said the figures on the increased numbers of nurses the Prime Minister trotted out were highly misleading, because there was massive double counting of nurses going on.

I was surprised but I have been talking to local experts and they confirmed it. Apparently it’s not just double-counting. It’s also counting as full time those doctors and nurses who work only part-time – or who don’t even work in patient care.

The question we need to get an answer to – and it’s very difficult – is:

How many full-time equivalent nurses and GPs are genuinely involved in patient care?

The Prime Minister’s answer may have been literally true, but also profoundly misleading at the same time.

Now here is a real sin.

So there is another brilliant example of how to lie with statistics but not to endanger your mortal soul.

CONCLUSION

I stand before you, a self-confessed sinner, but one who believes such sinning is essential to my work. I am part of a profession that is despised, reviled and rejected – but a profession whose work is central to the peace, prosperity and happiness of the world.

When you read unthinking and ill-judged attacks on us in your newspaper over your cornflakes, please look back on my confession. As Prospero pleads at the end of The Tempest, so I plead on behalf of my fellow politicians around the world:

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.


Back to Speeches