This post is a little different from normal Q fare and is written by MJ, a friend who has been involved in various ways in UK politics (working for parliamentarians and also as a civil servant). It’s based on a talk he recently gave to some Christians who are recent graduates and preparing for careers in this world. I thought it was very helpful, with application far beyond the vaulted grandeur of Westminster…
A framing used by some cross-cultural workers is to regard different cultures around the world as being Guilt/Innocence cultures; Fear/Power cultures; or Shame/Honour cultures. Traditionally, Western cultures are seen as primarily Guilt/Innocence, whereas middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures are seen as primarily Shame/Honour. In fact, all cultures are a mix, containing each to a greater of lesser extent.
In my experience, UK political culture – and especially the culture in political parties and in Parliament – contains more of these Shame/Honour characteristics than UK society does in general. It’s a mix, but I think there are some significant ways in which the incentives and the social pressures that you will experience within UK political culture are Shame/Honour incentives. So I want to consider the temptations and challenges for all, and particularly for Christian, in these spaces.
Shame/Honour Incentives in UK Politics
Let me clarify what I’m not saying. I’m not proposing some total, exhaustive analysis of UK political culture. I’m not reducing UK political culture down to this. Nor am I completely defending the ‘Shame-Honour’ framing, which can be simplistic. I’m merely wanting to use this lens to identify a few aspects of UK political culture for those who work in it.
The Status of the Group
So how might the Shame/Honour frame help here? I’m taking my definitions from the book 3D Gospel, by the missiologist Jayson Georges.
Honour is a person’s social worth, one’s value in the eyes of the community. Honour is when other people think well of you, resulting in harmonious social bonds in the community. Honour comes from relationships. Shame, on the other hand, is a negative public rating: the community thinks lowly of you. You are disconnected from the group.
He then explains the ‘strong group orientation’ of shame-honour cultures. He says
Because honour and shame are inherently relational, such cultures are collectivistic. Members of shame-honour cultures are expected to maintain the social status of the group, often at the expense of personal desires.
This is what MPs and Ministers are continually asked to do in Parliament and on TV, isn’t it? In Parliament, the plea from the Whips is constant, asking for MPs to raise questions or give speeches that will make the party look good. Ministers are sent out onto TV to completely defend the group (the Party). They’re not on TV as individuals, giving their own personal take, their own views. They are there merely to represent, to promote, and to defend the party.
We also saw the importance of the group, and of loyalty to the group, in the Corbyn years of the Labour Party. When Labour MPs criticised Corbyn’s leadership, the response from his allies and supporters was only partly to refute their claims. More often, the response would be that critics were damaging the Party’s image, that they were embarrassing the party, and that they should be loyal to the leader. Some of those MPs were ostracised and ultimately deselected – in other words, ‘disconnected from the group’.
Or take Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. The first big party management issue Boris had in 2020 was that he kept expecting MPs and Ministers to defend his decisions or his advisers – so they would go on TV, or tweet, or speak in Parliament, or write to their constituents, to defend him. And then the following week he’d reverse his decision or sack the adviser, and the MPs felt foolish – especially because they felt they couldn’t just come out and subsequently criticise the second decision. That would be the consistent thing to do, wouldn’t it? “I thought he shouldn’t sack the adviser last week, and I still don’t.” “I opposed that policy last week, and I still do.”
But MPs who complained knew that those weren’t the rules of the game; they knew that they were still expected to go out and defend the Prime Minister when the previous week they had defended him for doing the opposite. It’s all about making the group, the Party, look good; the only difference is that this time it was so obvious that they looked foolish.
Party Rewards & Incentives
And we can see this more if we think about reward and punishment in party politics. Alan Mak MP was recently given his first job in the Government, and Stephen Bush, the New Statesman journalist, described it as a good choice because Alan Mak is ‘noted as being consistently loyal’ – not competent, not brilliant: loyal. Because loyalty is the key currency to get ahead in party politics.
This fits with another theme Jayson Georges describes, which is the role of Patronage in a shame-honour culture. Patronage describes a relationship between a stronger individual and a weaker individual. The weaker individual provides loyalty and even obedience. In return, the stronger individual provides benefits, such as – in a political context – public support, perhaps a Ministerial visit to a constituency, or a promotion to a role in Government. Then to reward an MP at the end of their career, it might be a seat in the House of Lords.
Or think back to those Labour MPs who criticised Corbyn. They were told to be quiet and show some ‘loyalty’, or there would be consequences.
Clearly, this can become a really dangerous incentive. I knew MPs – I worked for one – who would never speak or vote against the Party, year after year after year because of the understanding that loyalty was essential to get ahead.
An MP I worked for once asked me to brief on how to vote in a key division, on police powers under the Mental Health Act. If someone was a danger to themselves or others, how should the police go about detaining them? I wrote a short briefing document explaining the two sides of this vote, on what was quite an important, sensitive and nuanced issue. I can still remember the MP yelling at me. The issue didn’t matter to them; just which way the party was telling MPs to vote. The political system rewards loyalty not diligence.
Another MP I worked for was offered a position in Government. They decided not to take it, but suggested to the Government Whip that they should “give the job to ___ MP” since that person had actually “worked in this field for decades and could make a difference by working with experts around the world; ___ is knowledgeable, experienced, and highly respected in this area.’
The Government Whip’s response was blunt: “This isn’t a meritocracy!” In other words, promotion rewards and incentivises loyalty, not competence or expertise.
Party Punishments & Sanctions
Here’s another way honour-shame culture plays out in UK party politics: what happens if an MP does something wrong? They have the whip removed; they are removed from the group.
Note how Jayson Georges describes the consequences of bad behaviour in a Shame/Honour society:
the shamed individual is banished from the group… [and] a shamed person (unlike a guilty person) can do very little to repair the social damage…More often than not, a person of a higher status must publicly restore honour to the shamed.
This dynamic is very similar to UK party politics. An MP in trouble is rarely proven innocent or guilty through some independent arbitration process; they are suspended or excluded by the party leadership, and they are restored by the party leadership.
Or again, think of those Labour MPs who criticised Corbyn: what was the threat against them? Deselection. Banishment from the group.
Another paragraph in Jayson Georges could be a description of getting ahead in politics or a political party:
The social matrix of honour-shame cultures is designed around establishing and expanding a network of relationships. Connections are vital in every aspect of life. Who you know (and who knows you) is everything!
Politics is not a career in which you get professional accreditation – like law or accounting. You get ahead by gaining a good reputation with the right people. Ideally, that happens through doing good work. But too often it slips into just being a game of ‘who you know’. Powerful people promote their contacts. It’s about patronage; it’s about the in-group; it’s who you know.
How to respond as Christians
So, if this Shame/Honour dynamic describes the UK’s political culture, at least in part, how might Christians in politics respond? I’ve got four brief thoughts: loyalty, status, shame, and adoption.
If the political party system is set up to incentivise and reward loyalty, then we need to be watching our own hearts, to keep our ultimate loyalty in the right place. Jesus said: ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s’. Well, the political world isn’t set up to help us to do that, and political parties, in particular, aren’t. Political parties survive by eking out all the loyalty they can from their MPs, by hook or by crook. And the same is true as you try to climb the party ladder; or simply try to build your career and reputation in politics. This can be even more difficult if you have a strong sense of calling into politics – because you’ll be desperate to succeed, and it will often feel like the ends could justify the means. Jesus warns us that we cannot serve two masters. So, in a system set up to create exclusive loyalty to Party, or Patron, or Cause, we will need to watch our own hearts.
And there are examples of people doing this in politics. I think of an MP I knew who, after years as an MP, finally got given a job in Government – on a topic they were passionate about, and were a real expert in. I remember them immediately throwing all their energy into it; I remember the ambitious plans they made.
Then, within a couple of weeks – before they’d even had a chance to hold a meeting – there was a vote in Parliament where they strongly disagreed with the party line, out of Christian convictions. They knew that voting against the party would see them immediately sacked; worse, they knew they’d never be given a Government position again.
And so: they voted against the party; they were immediately sacked; and they were never given Government position again. Their first loyalty was to the common good and to God.
In politics, reputation, connections, status, and closeness to power really matter. So, working in that kind of world, how will we treat those of low status?
As you seek to build a career in politics, will the way we treat those of high and low status reflect how Jesus treated those of different status in his society? In John 3 and 4, Jesus has conversations with a highly respected Pharisee, and with a Samaritan woman, who was a social outcast even in her own town. He treats them both the same. Jesus was even despised by the Pharisees because of who he associated with. And of course, in a much much bigger way, Jesus gave up his own status – as Philippians 2 says, Jesus
being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And who did he come to save? The sick who needed a doctor; the least of these.
If we allow careerism, or the incentives and ways of the political world, to make us proud, hierarchical snobs; to value people for how the world values them – then we are not walking the way of Jesus.
I hope that you have seen Christian MSPs, MPs and Peers who are like this: I certainly did. It is not the norm; so it stands out like a light on a hill.
In Mark 8:34, Jesus says ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
In my experience, at my church, we look at this verse and we say ‘yes, the Christian life will be hard, like Jesus’; and we will face suffering and hardship, like Jesus, and we should expect that.’ But I don’t think we make enough about the fact that we should expect shame too.
Jesus liked farming metaphors, and if he just wanted to talk about something being hard, he could have said something like ‘put your shoulder to the plough’. But he didn’t: he asks you to ‘take up your cross’. And a first-century crowd in the Roman Empire would have seen that not simply as painful or hard, but as a shameful thing. The cross was a profoundly shameful form of execution. As Hebrews 12 says, Jesus ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame.’
If you work in politics, you are working in a culture where people are terrified of shame and lost reputation – because it can end careers. But if you are a Christian then you are following in Jesus’ life – in which he chose to faithfully endure shame and ostracism.
Add to that the fact that, increasingly, many Christian beliefs are not just seen as wrong, but as deeply shameful (that’s certainly true among my colleagues in Westminster).
So whether we work in Holyrood or Westminster, or elsewhere, we need to beware that the culture we are in is trying to conform us to the world – as any culture does – and that if we are going to live a different way, Jesus’ way, that that will entail shame. And more than that – the political culture will be shaping us to avoid shame or bad reputation at all costs; but that is not the life to which Jesus has called us.
Again, I can think of MPs who lived like that. I think of the MPs I knew who would speak or vote on pro-life issues. I remember one of them saying to me: I know that if I vote in a pro-life way, or even abstain from a pro-choice vote, there are people in my local party who will respond by trying to deselect me, and they may well succeed, and my political career will be over. And yet they would still stand up and vote that way, knowing that it could lead to ostracism, rejection, shame, and the sudden end of their career.
UK political culture highly values status and reputation. Your status and reputation can affect whether you are celebrated or ignored; placed in positions of power and respect, or ostracised; in work or out of work.
If we are going to work in this world, then we need to work extra hard to remember the status we already have, which is of true and eternal value, and which is the real core of our identity. That is: our adoption as children of God, co-heirs with Christ; which is unchanging through all the ups and downs of politics.
Romans 8:15-17 says
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
I want to finish with these verses, because Paul was writing them to Christians in Rome – a society which really did know about honour and shame, and patronage. And the phrase he uses here, ‘adoption to sonship’, is the language of a change in legal status and social status.
Here is what my study Bible says about this adoption:
Life in Christ is marked by the freedom that comes from being God’s “sons.” Both men and women are here characterized as having the rights of “sons,” because with sonship came the right of inheritance. The Greek word here for “sons” is a legal term used in the adoption and inheritance laws of first-century Rome. As used by Paul in his letters, this term refers to the status of all Christians, both men and women, who, having been adopted into God’s family, now enjoy all the privileges, obligations, and inheritance rights of God’s children.
Working in politics, you do have to consider and build your reputation and status, but wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we allowed the political world to shape us so that we obsessed over that ephemeral worldly status – which, even if we get it, is like the grass, that flowers today and withers tomorrow – instead of living out that our only truly meaningful and lasting status is as adopted children of God, and co-heirs with Christ – of ‘an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade… kept in heaven for you.’
And what a huge encouragement and comfort – as we work in a political culture which can be cutthroat; which may shame us for our Christian beliefs; where a career and a reputation that takes decades to build can disappear overnight – what a firm rock we can stand on, what great joy, to know what matters so much more – that we are adopted as Children of God!