We want our political leaders to display good character - but what does it mean?

Posted on Thursday 31st July 2014

With just ten months to go before the next General Election, Labour leader Ed Miliband set out his vision for government last week in a speech that named ‘decency and empathy’ as two of the defining principles of leadership:

“The leadership you need and the leadership this country needs is one that has big ideas to change things. With the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard. And with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life. For me, those qualities are the gold standard for what a modern leader should offer.”

It is refreshing to see a leading UK politician highlight, as considerations essential to good leadership: moral qualities, instead of simply managerial skills; instrumental cleverness and ‘realpolitik’, also known as temporising compromise – often a euphemism for cutting moral corners for the sake of expediency.

In a Populus Poll of more than 2,000 UK adults in June 2014, commissioned by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues as part of its study into professional virtues; one of the most striking findings emerged in response to a question asking participants to rank, in order of priority, the top three professions for which they feel it is most important to be a morally good person.

Populus Poll
  Most important Top 3 most important
Doctor 41% 77%
Politician 20% 41%
Teacher 16% 60%
Nurse 8% 38%

It may be surprising for some to see politicians ranked above teachers and nurses, professions in which moral virtues are typically considered to be of paramount importance. Participants in this survey were not asked to evaluate to what extent they considered politicians to have actualised the aspirations of good character. That was hardly necessary as survey after survey, not only in the UK but in most Western democracies, has revealed growing disillusionment with the politicians and the political system.

Politicians these days often talk about the need for improving character. However, there are two things to note about such proclamations. Firstly, they are usually about the need to instil good character in somebody other than the politicians themselves, most often school children. Secondly, what politicians tend to mean by ‘character’ is a set of amoral performance skills such as grit and self-confidence. To be sure, building general character muscle of that sort is a useful endeavour, but it still begs the question: What is this muscle going to be used for - namely, moral or immoral ends?

With these two observations in mind, it is encouraging to see Mr Miliband be brave enough to mention moral qualities that political leaders need to cultivate and adopt. It must be said, however, that the two he chose to focus on are not the most demanding ones around. ‘Empathy’ is the psychological capacity to be able to put oneself in another’s shoes - a helpful quality indeed but hardly tantamount to a full-blown moral virtue.

Moreover, we surely want politicians to be ‘decent’ in the sense of not hurting, abusing and offending others, but just as with doctors, nurses and teachers, we are entitled to ask for something more than that. We want those professionals to be compassionate by feeling pain at the misfortune of others - and not just to sit pretty on such emotions but to do something about them, namely by serving others.
It is not until politicians retrieve and restore the ideal of being servants of the public that the public disengagement with political life and the ‘political classes’ will start to change for the better.

Professor James Arthur
Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson
Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham