As the service of thanksgiving in St Paul's yesterday set the tone for the final day of Jubilee celebrations, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the Queen's lifelong dedication to her country and to her Commonwealth. He chose also to reflect on the joy to be derived from a life of service to others, demonstrated by Her Majesty in her continuing good humour and palpable interest in the lives of those she meets.
In fulfilling the exhortations of the cathedral's patron saint, the Queen continues to provide clear and unwavering leadership in an age of uncertainty. None of her subjects need be in any doubt that she understands her purpose and accomplishes it to the highest possible standard.
At this time of celebration, it is no surprise that political figures lag far behind their monarch in public approbation. But it is nonetheless dismaying that a YouGov poll published at the weekend shows such a lack of confidence in the ability of politicians to identify with the day to day concerns of voters. Asked who is more in touch with the lives of the people they serve, the Queen or senior politicians, 35% opted for Her Majesty compared to just 9% for politicians. The privileges, wealth and grandeur attached to our monarch have not, it seems, set her apart from her people. Yet the Government and Opposition, despite all their attention to public opinion, seem to have erected a barrier between Westminster and the outside world. How has this happened?
Part of the explanation for the poll result is, of course, the overwhelming popularity of the Queen at this point in her reign; it is a tribute to her as much as it is a condemnation of the political classes. But I think the reason also lies in the public's recognition of good and purposeful leadership, and its disappointment that modern British politicians lack such qualities.
David Cameron certainly cut a good figure at the service in St Paul's, reading from the New Testament with immaculate diction and dignity. He also looked the part rather better than Ed Miliband, whose casual hand in pocket stance was not the best way to be caught on camera at such a formal occasion. But neither of these party leaders has yet succeeded in convincing the British public that they have a clear purpose in political life, save perhaps that of gaining (and retaining) power. This failure is, I believe, a significant reason for the public cynicism displayed in the YouGov poll and in many other recent surveys. To lead with purpose is to pursue an ideal, or at the very least to believe in a set of values and to keep these in sight. If the public is unable to detect what the Government's ideals and values are, it is but a short step to the assumption that politicians are “in it for themselves” – for the perks of office, the expense account, the chance to show off for the TV cameras.
The Prime Minister, in particular, badly needs to rediscover a sense of purpose and to demonstrate that he is in government for a reason. The Coalition's purported central objective – to restore the nation's economic health – is making faltering progress, in part due to the inability of the Coalition to reconcile opposing views on, for example, deregulation and tax cutting. Those Ministers who have a clear purpose – notably Iain Duncan Smith with his welfare reform agenda and Michael Gove with his determination to shake up failing schools and restore academic standards – seem better able to withstand the difficulties of governing in coalition. Their adherence to a set of ideals gives them a consistent framework for decision-making and a robust answer to critics.
Certainly they are steering a steadier course than George Osborne and his team at the Treasury, who appear to lack any framework of ideas. One post-Budget U-turn might be passed off as listening and learning, but two looks like carelessness and three is surely incompetence. As the Chancellor has discovered, cutting the deficit is not of itself an economic policy; it must be part of an overarching strategy to boost economic growth and radically reduce the size and scope of the state. Preparation for every Budget, and indeed every decision on taxing and spending, should be prefaced by the Chancellor asking himself: will this measure help to achieve that strategic purpose? Once the question is answered and the measure announced, it is vital for the Chancellor to stick to his course. Otherwise not only will he acquire a reputation for incompetence, he will also sow confusion and uncertainty. At this time of global economic turmoil, taxpayers and businesses are having enough difficulty planning for the future without the added unpredictability of Treasury U-turns.
As each event of the Jubilee weekend has reinforced the Queen's reputation for steadfast leadership, and her response has deepened the nation's affection, commentators have repeatedly reflected on her importance in an age of uncertainty and change. No politician can ever hope to emulate Her Majesty's unique qualities, nor should any aspire to compete with her levels of public esteem. But all can learn from her steadiness of course and her unswerving devotion to the ideals which guide her. The people of this country recognise leadership when they see it, and in an age of scepticism can still display deep loyalty and a willingness to be led.