How easily should a public figure be sacked?
Michael Fallon, the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary, was forced to resign. He did this shortly after he was forced to admit he had inappropriately touched the knee of a female journalist fifteen years earlier.
Priti Patel, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development was forced to step down in the same week as Mr Fallon. Why? Because she went on holiday in Israel and was revealed to have held meetings with Israeli officials on some days.
Meanwhile, Britain’s raffish Foreign Secretary skirts on the edge of dismissal too. His latest transgression involves telling a parliamentary committee that a British woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in Iran on charges of undermining the state, had actually gone there to teach journalists, and not, as she has always maintained, on vacation.
So wait, you say. One minister made a minor pass at a woman; another mixed leisure with business; and a third misspoke or was misinformed. What’s the big deal? Why should they be forced out or be under scrutiny, precipitating a crisis in government? Surely we can be less prudish and judgemental, forgive senior people their minor lapses and get on with their important work?
No, look and think again.
Mr Fallon did not go just because of that one complaint. There was apparently a long list of alleged incidents involving him in appropriate behaviour that was being compiled. There were probably many other revelations to come. He made a judicious choice with his employer, the Prime Minister, to go before his position became untenable.
Ms Patel’s crime was not that of mixing official duties with pleasure. She asked to go because the meetings she held in Israel were found to be unauthorised and unofficial – and a major breach of protocol. She went because she broke the ministerial code which sets out the standards of conduct expected of UK government ministers. She was neither open nor transparent in her dealings with the Israelis, and stood the risk of being accused of being partisan. It was later revealed that the meetings she held were organized by a pro-Israel lobbyist.
As for Mr Johnson, where to start? His gaffe led to the Iranian authorities hauling Ms Zaghari-Radcliffe back to court and using his words to increase the sentence against her by accusing her of spreading propaganda. Both the lady in question and her employer (the Thomson-Reuters Foundation) say Mr Johnson was completely wrong; Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has never taught journalists, and was just on vacation in Iran. There are now indications that Iran may be using her as a bargaining chip to force Britain to make other concessions. So much for prudent diplomacy. If Mr Johnson survives, it will only be because of Britain’s peculiar post-Brexit politics, not because he did nothing wrong. He consistently lets his country down abroad.
Here in Kenya, where no ethical breach or bad behaviour seems sufficient to warrant even a ticking-off let alone a defenestration, we may look on nonplussed. We should not.
It is exactly right to hold senior public servants to the highest standards of conduct. The tone of the nation is set at the top. If those highest placed in society are allowed to breach every rule, you can rest assured that the standards will weaken all the way down.
When you put yourself forward to represent your people, your nation or your institution, you do so by binding yourself to a commitment: that you will uphold yourself with dignity and decorum; that you will protect resources placed in your care; that you will make decisions based on due consideration and diligence.
If you cannot meet those standards, it is right and fitting that you should go, willingly or not. The upper echelons of public service cannot tolerate sex pests or flouters or bluffers. Tolerating those things only lowers the standard and invites degradation.
Rules are honoured in their observance, not in the breach. Institutions stay strong not by making allowances and exceptions at every turn, but by sticking to what they are tasked to uphold. If we wish to mature as a society, we must learn to respect the codes we create to regulate behaviour.
That respect only comes through enforcement. Working as the agent of the people, or of the shareholders, is no joke. It carries great responsibility and with that comes personal accountability.
(Sunday Nation, 26 November 2017)