Who judges the judges?

We are living in an age of Puritan orthodoxy

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery hangs William Frederick Yeames’s “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” The great, improving picture about the Civil War is much more subtle than the Victorian age’s reputation for melodrama and sentiment might suggest. While the Roundhead interrogators are sympathetically cast, the boy’s childish innocence — and the dangers in speaking the truth — puts the dilemma of honesty centre-stage. Yeames chose the Civil War and Interregnum period to illustrate the drama, much though Victorians thought they had moved on from that era.

The fin de siècle cynicism of the Blair years has given way to an overbearing public orthodoxy

In the seventeenth century, disagreement had potentially very disagreeable consequences. But in the age of Queen Victoria, British freedoms included the freedom to disagree — in parliament, in the press, in public. How is it, then, that today’s New Elizabethan age seems more inspired by that Puritan Commonwealth of close-minded virtue, a culture of suppression in which any child would do well to bridle his tongue?

Boris Johnson has been asked to account for and apologise for many things, and whatever questions he has faced about fatherhood, we can say when last he apologised to the famous painting’s home, Liverpool. This was in 2012, of a 2004 apology that was held not to have gone far enough about a magazine editorial  in The Spectator.

The 2004 piece had accused the great city of “wallowing” in its grief after the Hillsborough tragedy. At the time of the first apology Johnson was both the magazine’s editor and a junior opposition spokesman under Michael Howard. Appalled, Howard dispatched Johnson to Liverpool to apologise in person, holding that his private, commercial, work as an editor had bled into his public role as a frontbench MP. This apology did not work, for Howard at any rate: the then Conservative leader felt obliged to sack Johnson. The second apology succeeded, inasmuch as Johnson retained his then position as Mayor of London (and Daily Telegraph columnist). 

This might look like a classickto kogo?” In Lenin’s supposed formulation, Johnson was the who, while Liverpool, being apologised to, was the whom. But the unspoken why was Howard’s need that his errant subordinate should be seen to apologise in the party’s interest (with whatever additional pleasures embarrassing him may have entailed). What need had an outraged Liverpool for this apology? Perhaps it was less pressing than the worldly considerations Howard believed managing a news story necessitated. 

This is no longer the world we live in. Now, the predominant question is who judges whom? The fin de siècle cynicism of the Blair years has given way to an overbearing public orthodoxy.

Come any Tory leadership contest, the candidates will all have their pasts judged

Sue Gray, who as a civil servant remains an opaque figure, has been Mr Johnson’s most recent judge in the service of this new morality. She inherited the role from a more senior civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, who had proposed, at the Prime Minister’s behest, to sit in judgement of Johnson and, conceivably, a handful of his fellow officials. But Case was himself in turn accused of doing what he was tasked with judging.

Mr Case has suffered no embarrassment, public criticism or  loss of status for having been considered too compromised to head the inquiry he had undertaken to lead. Kay Burley and Beth Rigby, Sky News journalists, had, in 2020, suffered considerable embarrassment, and the limited sanction of being suspended on full pay, for breaching the then Lockdown restrictions. Unabashed, both have sternly judged the Prime Minister in their reporting of his claimed Lockdown breaches.

Then there is Boris Johnson’s former advisor Dominic Cummings and his pursuit of truth. Cummings has offered to “swear on oath” his claims about the Prime Minister’s behaviour. The wonder is that Cummings was too discreet to reveal this at the time. After all, at least some of Johnson’s behaviour took place in mid-2020 when Downing Street was defending Cummings over his Lockdown-non-compliant roadtrip to County Durham. The former advisor must be kicking himself it did not occur to him then to offer to place his hand upon the Bible to convince us about his fidelity to the truth.

Come any Tory leadership contest, the candidates will all have their pasts judged, to see if their behaviour was fully complaint with the future they would like to have in Downing Street. 

Judge not, that ye be not judged, begins Matthew 7, but this gospel’s chapter ends:

And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

Whatever the merits of living in a judgemental age, our sorriest misfortune is in the character of the judges we possess.

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