“There are those professions that we love – nurses, teachers, firefighters – who spend their careers tending to others.
There are those we need – accountants, dentists, engineers.
And then there are those professions we know we need, but we don’t exactly love.
I think it’s fair to say that my chosen profession probably falls into the third category.
Down the ages, the art of politics has been equated to low cunning, skulduggery, and mirth.
So what is a politician doing in a church talking about value and faith in public life, except seeking redemption?
Well, I’m here because another Minister, Ian, a Minister of the Church, intrigued me with his invitation.
And I’m here because I wanted to think about the values of public service that I hold dear.
Now, we English don’t really wear our values or our faith on our sleeve. Tony Blair’s spin doctor – a profession of yet more low cunning and skulduggery – famously said “we don’t do God”. He didn’t mean that the former Prime Minister wasn’t religious – far from it. He meant that he didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t want to answer the question.
But as your local representative I think it’s reasonable that you should ask, and that I should try to answer, so thank you, Ian, for your invitation.
I doubt my own profession of faith is very profound, nor very interesting. It’s certainly very Anglican, in that I don’t take orders on it from anyone.
And not just Anglican, I would say it’s very Church of England: steadfast, resolute, yet unobtrusive. A source of calm contemplation when things don’t make sense, and a source of joy when they do. A source of hope when things go wrong, and a source of humility when the don’t.
It’s certainly based on a strong sense of community. I believe our common faith brings us together, and I believe in a faith that helps us to look beyond our differences to that which binds us together, by reminding us that each and every person is part of something bigger than ourselves, that we have more in common than that which divides us. It is an irony that I believe this holds true between different faiths too. And I hate to see faith used as a source of division. My wife and children are Catholic, and our common faith as a family is a source of strength. After all, denominations are but nuances. I draw great inspiration from my late Grandmother, an ecumenicist who worshipped beyond her hundredth year.
That’s what I believe, it’s very personal, and I doubt it’s very important to anyone else. And I’m grateful, Ian, for you getting me to put it into words.
What I hope is more interesting, is that I think faith calls for and can underpin values in public life.
And this, by contrast, is important.
I believe very strongly in the value of public service. I believe politics, done right, is a public service. It’s one of many, of course. There are many ways to serve your community. And I don’t mean politics doesn’t have other benefits too. It gives purpose. It’s interesting, and lots of fun. Crikey, last week I was at the Brits with Ronnie Wood. Last year I got taken up for a flight in an F15. It has its perks.
Ultimately, I think politics can be a noble calling. Politics after all, is how we organise ourselves when there is no higher authority. The trick is to create and perpetuate a politics that brings out the best in the participants. It’s safe to say that doesn’t always happen. But we should strive for it.
For me, it’s the public service that makes politics rewarding. The sense that the work we do – with my talented and dedicated team – is done to help others. And I don’t know of any politician – and I know a lot of politicians – who does not find reward in helping others. In serving their community. It’s true in my experience of politicians on all sides. We may not always agree on the thing to do, or even on the goals, but by and large we do what we think is right.
That can be hugely rewarding. In my office in the Commons I have a “board of love” – of thanks and mementoes from when we’ve solved a problem for a constituent, or won some battle with bureaucracy to make someone’s life better.
Of course none of this can be done alone. Public service is mostly a team activity – another reason it’s so rewarding. I work with other public servants every day.
In London I work with my Parliamentary colleagues, with my constituency team, and with Civil Servants, who have chosen a career in service of the nation to provide the expert, objective, and stable Government machine that is so vital to make things run properly.
I work with Councillors, prison officers, and council staff here in West Suffolk, who work so hard to serve the community locally.
I pay tribute to servants of the people – and servants of the Church – who could opt for an easier life, but instead choose to serve their neighbour.
But my view isn’t panglossian. We are all fallen. We are only human. We have flaws and vices and failures of character and of resolve. But the best way to keep the powerful honest is accountability – in this world and the next – and the rough, often tough scrutiny of the press keeps us real in the here-and-now.
I think Britain should be proud that we have one of the most robustly accountable systems of Government of all the countries in the world. Is it imperfect? Certainly, yes. Must we strive to do better? Absolutely we must. I try to strive every day to make the community and country I serve a better place. That can only be done by appealing to the values we hold. These are the values I hold dear. I think they’re important and worth defending. And Ian I am grateful to you for asking me to think about them, and giving me the chance to try to articulate them today.”