Inspiring Service – Pembroke College, the University of Oxford: Principles, Practice, People.

Nov 24, 2018 | Uncategorized


Inspiring Service – Pembroke College, the University of Oxford. November 23rd, 2018: Principles, Practice, People.



Only in Britain would the words “Community Service” be turned into a punishment to be dispensed by the courts.


The principle of serving others is a central tenet of citizenship; for Christians it is at the very heart of the Gospel; the service of others changes lives, changes society, and changes us – all for the better.It is the animating principle for public life par excellence.


It draws its force from the recognition that every human person (every soul) is worth more than the whole of the rest of the created order. Each unique, each a person, made in the image and likeness of God, each with inherent dignity and worth and each made to express themselves as moral beings that grow in love and charity through their own particular gifts.



I have assumed that when Andrew Teal set me this examination question –“Inspiring Service” – discuss – he would want me to reflect on almost 40 years spent in Parliament and eight years before that, serving an inner-city neighbourhood in Liverpool, where half the homes had no inside sanitation, and where I was elected, while in my final year as a student, as a City Councillor.


I will do just that.


Let me follow the example of the Romans who divided Gaul into three parts –  stating, firstly, what principles should inspire service through politics; secondly, how Faith should inspire us to serve; and thirdly, who has inspired me. Principles, Practice and People.


What principles should inspire service through politics?


Every day that I am at Westminster I walk through Westminster Hall – where Parliament first met in 1265, within whose walls Thomas More and Charles I were tried, and where, in  1965 Winston Churchill was laid in State.


As a young boy, along with millions of others, I walked past Churchill’s coffin. He has been lionised as the man who saved democracy. Yet Churchill had a realistic view of democracy and politics, once saying that:


“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”


This“least worst form of government,” in this “world of sin and woe” – impaired but always preferable to dictatorship or totalitarianism – cannot function without virtue and commonly held values and a belief in serving the nation rather than serving yourself and sectional interests.


In 1979, elected to the House of Commons, I was privileged to serve alongside the last Members who had seen active service in the Second World War and who had served alongside Churchill in the House. Overwhelmingly, regardless of their Party, they believed in public service and the principle of duty.


The alternative approach to political service can be found in Nicolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. He tells us that the ruler should not hesitate to deceive and be prepared to choose evil as the price of power.


Machiavelli despised many traditional Christian beliefs, turning on their head Christian words such as virtue, believing that real virtue emanated from the pursuit of ambition, glory and power.


Mercifully, he didn’t have access to Twitter.


This represented a fundamental break with Aquinas and medieval scholasticism and the Aristotelian belief in the pursuit of virtue. Aristotle had a high view of “the polis”, insisting that “we are not solitary pieces in a game of chequers” but all players in a common life; and that shame –“aidos” would attach to the citizen who refused to play their part.


Aristotle warned that“ he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must either be a beast or a god.”


Aquinas echoed Aristotle in extolling the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.


This inspired belief in the value of virtuous service to others is captured in many societies and systems of belief.


My mother was a native Irish speaker. On the wall of the Council flat where I grew up we had some words in Irish which said “It is in the shelter of each other’s lives that the people live”.


We lived next door to a Jewish lady, Sadie Moonshine, who would have been familiar with Hillel’s admonition that “If I am not myself who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”


Nelson Mandela often reflected on the idea of “Ubuntu” – a person is a person because of other people and Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained that“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, …and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”


Ubuntu is only possible in a person with this common good mentality, a mentality at odds with our cold, calculated utilitarian social mores.



Public policy can never be legitimate if it does not serve and promote the flourishing of each unique created person; and withstand the violation of a minority or even a single individual, because there can be no ‘common good’ that does not respect our equal worth and dignity first.


We don’t exist in isolation; we are not simply individuals – who, in a parody of the Gospel think it’s ok to“do unto others before they do you” – to simply demand bigger faster, better more, and the absolute right to choose, while being oblivious to the consequences for others.

The great nineteenth century idealist and exponent of ethical liberalism – and Oxford City Councillor – , Thomas Hill Green was right when he said that“If the idea of the community of good for all men has even now little influence the reason is that we identify too little with good character and too much with good things.” 


The concept that we should place ourselves at the service of others – at the service of the Common Good; at the service of the weakest, the poorest, the most vulnerable – gives form and expression to the desire of the virtuous citizen to generously and altruistically use their privileges and talents in the inspired service of others.


A snapshot of contemporary Britain shows what happens when we stop looking out for one another; where toxic loneliness replaces family and community cohesion and too many feel like losers even when thought to be winners in purely material terms; where without shared values and rules, stable relationships, a sense of duty and a willingness to serve others, we too easily shrink into merely atomised individuals, invariably unhappy, unfulfilled and often alone. 


Whether we like it or not we come from a community, with all its faults and failings, and each of us – with all our own faults and failings – have some gift to return to that community. That is how it should be.



Regrettably, too often, public service through politics has been replaced by a self-serving and self-regarding form of careerism: too often dominated by attempts to climb Disraeli’s greasy pole; too often characterised by an intolerance and toxicity – reflected even at universities like this with the no platforming of alternative views; too often governed by narrow ideologies;  increasingly disconnected from communities, creating a vacuum into which organisations with extreme and inflammatory views are able to enter with ease. 


Mahatma Gandhi warned of the danger of becoming disconnected: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves”and telling us that “You must be the change you want to see in the world”


If we want to change the world, we need to change our nation, if we want to change our nation we must change our communities, if we want to change our communities, we must change our families, and if we want to change our families we must change ourselves.  Change doesn’t come about by itself – it comes through active participation and voluntary service. Sometimes that will be through elected office.


The African Bishop who once said that politics is not a dirty business – just that some of the players have dirty hands – was right.


Politics is only as good as the people who engage in it.


And what follows when democracy is hollowed out?


2017 saw the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which paved the way for totalitarianism, social engineering, state terror and mass murder, leaving a legacy of prison camps and unmarked graves. 30 million people were executed, starved to death or perished in labour camps in what was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives.


It began with the Armenian genocide and culminated in the Holocaust  and the depredations of the four mass murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.


Our former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, reminds us:“Do not ask where was God at Auschwitz,  ask where was man” while the great Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us that “not to speak is to speak; not to act is too act.” 


Does Faith inspire us to serve?


If all of this should guide us into political service what does the Christian Faith say to us?


Every person uniquely reflects the Divine Likeness, and for that reason alone we are required to uphold the dignity of each.


In rendering unto Caesar, we do not need to stop seeing everything through the lens of our Faith.


When Churchill, who was not known for religious ardour, was once described as “a pillar of the church,” he corrected the speaker by interjecting: “No, no, not a pillar, but a buttress, supporting it from the outside.” 



He insisted that “The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide. … Only by bringing it into perfect application can we hope to solve for ourselves the problems of this world and not of this world alone.”


Churchill understood that the “least worst form of government” was dependent on Judeo-Christian values.


If Churchill was our greatest twentieth century Prime Minister, Gladstone was the nineteenth century’s.


He said“As to its politics, this country has much less, I think, to fear than to hope; unless through a corruption of its religion – against which, as Conservative or Liberal, I can perhaps say I have striven all my life long.” –a sentiment with which William Wilberforce, Lord Shaftesbury, Keir Hardie and many other significant political figures would have concurred.


In an inspiring letter, the last he wrote, John Wesley told Wilberforce to use all his political skills to end slavery and to fight for human dignity, to be like the fourth century Christian bishop Athanasius:  an “Athanasius contra mundum”an “Athanasius against the world.”


In all our Faith traditions we need to encourage greater emphasis to an outpouring of service. And what a blessing this can be. After all, 84% of the world’s population are religious.


From the Catholic tradition, where do I look for inspiration?


John Henry Newman told his Oxford students to love their country and to serve the nation:“We are not born for ourselves, but for our kind, for our neighbours, for our country: it is but selfishness, indolence, a perverse fastidiousness, an unmanliness, and no virtue or praise, to bury our talent in a napkin.”  


Jacques Maritain, in Integral Humanism, asserted that“Christianity taught men that love is worth more than intelligence”, insisting that Christianity may not need democracy to survive but democracy needs Christianity if it is to thrive.


It is fragile and like the call to serve needs to be nurtured and renewed in every generation.


Democracy is not a spectator sport; Christians must offer servant leadership; and fearlessly champion human dignity. Chesterton remarked in 1930 that When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights.”

  The Church fathers say the same, declaring in 1965

in Dignitatis Humanae,that Religious freedom ought to have this further purpose and aim, namely that people may come to act with greater responsibility in fulfilling their duties in community life.”


In 1993 in Veritatis Splendor, that “ As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”; in 2009 in  Caritas in Veritate, that “Many people …are concerned only with their rights… Hence it is important to call for a renewed reflection on how rights presuppose duties, if they are not to become mere license”; and Pope Francis, in 2016, in “The Name of God is Mercy”, rebukes those who“ neglect love”while using the metaphor of “the field hospital”– where “those who are the most wounded”can encounter Christian love in action.

 Inspiring and channelling adherents into public service is transformative of individuals and of society.

So much for the principles and practice. What about the people who inspire me?

Never forget the local councillors, the political activists, the backroom people who organise elections, the unseen and unsung heroes; those who spend hour after hour in advice centres and surgeries dealing with day to day crises and problems facing constituents – demonstrating that you genuinely cared about them.

I have a poster on my study wall that says “God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee” but legions of decent people give their time freely  spending hour after hour in meetings and committees to make the system work and that is public service too.

E.M.Forster, in his book,Two Cheers for Democracy, which he wrote as“a liberal who has found liberalism crumbling beneath him” – insists that the idiosyncratic bloody minded back bench MP who gets some minor injustice put right is the justification of our imperfect system of democracy.

  Inspired political service can put right more than minor injustices – I have mentioned Wilberforce, who with Clarkson, the Quaker ladies and others campaigned for 40 years against the slave trade.

And think of heroes like Bonhoeffer or Maximilian Kolbe whose stand against Nazism cost them their lives.

But there are countless others, too, who should inspire us to use the gifts which we have been given.

As a teenager I was inspired by Robert Kennedy and Dr.Martin Luther King – both murdered for their beliefs. Kennedy insisted that “each of us can work to change a small portion of events.”


I was recently in Pakistan, raising the case of Asia Bibi –incarcerated for 9 years with a death sentence.

In 2011, after championing her case the Christian Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and his Muslim friend, Salmaan Taseer, Governor of the Punjab, were both murdered: By entering into political service Bhatti knew his potential fate:“I know the meaning of the Cross. I am following the Cross and I am ready to die for a cause.” 

Esther famously said“If I perish, I perish”“how can I look on, while my people suffer what is in store for them?” 


Asia, like Bhatti and Taseer, came as it tells us in the wonderful Book of Esther,“for such a time as this.”


And there isn’t always justice or reconstruction.

Shahbaz Bhatti’s murderers have never been brought to justice in a country where last year a mob of 1,200 people forced two children to watch as their Christian parents were burned alive.

Think, too, of the 21 Coptic Christians who, in 2015, in the moment of their barbaric execution by ISIS were repeating the words“Lord, Jesus Christ” ; or of the two North Korean women who appeared before a Committee I chair and described egregious and brutal violations of human rights.

When you encounter people like this – facing murder, beheadings, rape, terror, intimidation –  you can feel overawed but inspired too.

These examples and these stories are pointless unless they inspire us to do something about it – to put our array of amazing gifts and privileges at the service of others.

In these three points – Principles, Practice and People – addressing the principles that should inspire service through politics; stating how Faith should inspire us to serve; and by mentioning some who have inspired me, I hope that I have done justice to Andrew Teal’s invitation to reflect on inspiring service.



Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

Social Media

Site Search

Recent Posts

Statement from  the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the situation of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray region: ” extremely troubled by the humanitarian situation”…”in spite of repeated requests, UNHCR and partners have not yet had any access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps”… I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps”…”refugees who reached Addis Ababa are being returned to Tigray, some against their will.”

Statement from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the situation of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray region: ” extremely troubled by the humanitarian situation”…”in spite of repeated requests, UNHCR and partners have not yet had any access to the Shimelba and Hitsats refugee camps”… I am very worried for the safety and well-being of Eritrean refugees in those camps”…”refugees who reached Addis Ababa are being returned to Tigray, some against their will.”

Statement from the UN High Commissioner for...

Share This