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Can these men restore trust in our public institutions?

2012 December 30

Pie crust promises, my Mum used to call them. Easily made and easily broken. I’m not so sure about easily made; my hands are apparently too hot for pastry. But my Mum could knock up fabulous short crust in minutes. So the analogy made perfect sense to her. She would use it about New Year’s Resolutions.

Tomorrow is the day for them and, let’s face it, there’s a lot around that is in serious need of resolving.  The Olympics and the Jubilee gave a glowing veneer to what would otherwise have been a rather grim omnishambles year with a double dip recession, a deepening eurozone crisis and a hose-pipe ban that somehow transformed itself into the wettest year on record. Now the new year offers the prospect of more job insecurity, longer hours, overstressed colleagues and pay that lags behind inflation – for those lucky enough to remain in work.

And that’s just the economy. In public life we are surrounded by once-respected institutions – parliament, police, paymasters, priests and press – in which trust has taken a battering.  Then there is abroad: will 2013 be the year when Iran passes the point of no return in their drive for a nuclear bomb, will the United States fall off the fiscal cliff, will the sun continue to rise in the East (where 13 is not an unlucky number) even as it sets here in the West? Will we frack our landscape into seismic shock or water-table pollution? Will the world continue to sleepwalk into the four degree temperature rise which will make global warming irreversible? Or can a few good New Year’s Resolutions sort all this out?

Perhaps we should not be so pessimistic. After all, history builds nodal points into the affairs of humankind which offer the prospect of change.  Within a few short months we will have a new Governor of the Bank of England, a new Director General of the BBC, a new Archbishop of Canterbury. Maybe between them they can usher in simultaneous economic, cultural and spiritual renewal.

“Unhappy is the land that needs a hero,” Brecht had his Galileo idealistically say. But this disconsolate country could do with more than one. We should not have unrealistic hopes. But Mark Carney the new man at the helm of both monetary policy and financial regulation has a good track record as head of Canada’s admittedly smaller central bank.

Tony Hall comes to the BBC with not just a solid journalistic reputation but having now sorted out the financial, artistic and political mess at the Royal Opera House and found  clever high-tech ways of making its work more accessible by beaming its productions live to cinemas around the country. And Justin Welby, a former oil executive turned priest, will arrive as the new Cantuar with useful  experience of managing complex processes and organisations which should come in handy in a bitterly-divided church which has lost much moral authority in speaking to the rest of society.

The challenges they each face are formidable. Mark Carney will manage an economy in which top bosses have seen their pay treble in the past 10 years while their company share prices have stagnated and their staff’s pay has barely kept pace with inflation – and for which he is being paid a salary of £480,000, a £250,000 housing allowance, payment in lieu of pension worth £144,000, plus private health and dental insurance and a chauffeur-driven car – a package of around £900,000, treble that of his predecessor.

Tony Hall has to cope with the aftermath of the odious Jimmy Savile,  negotiate charter renewal and a licence-fee settlement in a politically hostile environment and conduct the “radical structural overhaul” demanded by its Trust chairman Lord Patten. And the new Archbishop of Canterbury arrives at a time when the census shows that the proportion of the population calling themselves Christian has dropped by 13 per cent in the last decade. And though three quarters of the public still identify themselves as having a religious faith of some kind they are overwhelmingly out of step with the Church’s attitudes to women and gays.

What all three men have in common is that they take on jobs which have each previously been described as too big to be done properly by one person. That was because they were, in accordance with the philosophy of recent times, seen as tasks of corporate management rather than personal leadership. Yet the public has grown distrustful and alienated from the corporate.

Each of newcomers to these top jobs exudes a clear vision and sense of conviction about what they want to do in the post. They also know they have to start by understanding the level of public disenchantment with their institutions. They know they must find a way of making their personal leadership and sense of purpose something with which ordinary people can identify once again.

The late US General Norman Schwarzkopf once made a vivid distinction between those who are involved and those who are committed. In a ham and egg breakfast, Stormin’ Norman said, the hen is involved but the pig is committed. The truth is that we are all committed in the year ahead. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five the conscript hero Billy Pilgrim has a prayer framed on the wall of his office: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Among the things the crazed Billy Pilgrim could not change, Vonnegut insists, were the past, the present, and the future. The rest of us have more leeway over everything except the past. And the future starts today. 

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