It is sobering to stand before the The Allegory of Good and Bad Government in the beautiful city of Sienna. The exquisitely detailed frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti were painted in the mid-14th century and focus on the responsibilities and consequences of civic authority. It was created at a time when the Italian city-states were evolving efficient and pragmatic forms of government. Notably, as with Lorenzetti’s frescos, this form of politics was not channeled through the Church. Methods of organisation and management were viewed as some of the finest in Europe and provided models for institutions in other lands. For example, Henry VII drew on plans designed for running one of Florence’s hospitals to inform his work to found the Savoy Hospital in London.
The concept of governance, defined as “the way in which public power and authority is formed and used to control and manage society’s resources”.Laver, R. (2010). ““Good News” in the fight against corruption.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 8(4): 49-57.
During the Reformation in England there was a decided turn towards the centrality of governance. This isn’t unexpected given the King’s determination to consolidate his position at the pinnacle of authority. Nor can it be surprising that an assertive renewal of governance would clash with anything that might appear to trespass on sovereign power – not least the Church. From the mid 1530s ‘Henry remained insistent on his royal supremacy for the rest of his reign’ (Orme, 2005). The government of Church and State were to be united in the King’s person.
“and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of the supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining”.Henry VIII ‘s Act of Supremacy (1534)
The consequences of this spiritual and temporal unity ran wide and deep. Sovereignty was projected into public life in ways that proclaimed the place of the King as governor of all that lay in the Kingdom. It became customary to replace sacred images in churches with religious texts and the Royal coat of arms. Tellingly, among the options available to address God in prayer, the language of governance became more pronounced. The poorest in society, those availing themselves of re-founded hospitals, made their prescribed prayers to: ‘O Lord, our Governor’.
Good and bad governance is a persistent theme in many books of the Bible. The prophets in particular spoke out for just government and against corrupt or self-interested forms of leadership. Ruling with justice was seen as the fulfilment of God’s will for the people. The initial verses of Isaiah 32 convey the sense of desire for a sovereign righteousness that will bring peace. With the right King the ‘princes will rule with justice’ and be ‘like the shade of a great rock in a weary land’. The prophet articulates the longing of the people. The time for the rule of villains and fools has passed.
“A fool will no longer be called noble,
nor a villain said to be honourable”.Isaiah 32: 5 NRSV
While it may sound like a festive after-dinner entertainment, ‘when is a party not a party’ involves far more serious issues than its frivolity suggests. It isn’t possible yet to calculate the sheer cost of lockdowns for people, only time will reveal the consequences of isolation and shielding. For some people the impact of COVID-19 deprived them of a last Christmas with their nearest and dearest.
We can all say silly things and forget the wider context of life around us, but at 10 Downing Street it feels more like an infestation of disdain rather than a slip of the tongue. A Prime Minster who began the pandemic bumptiously telling reporters he’d been to a hospital where there were COVID patients and shaken ‘everyone’s hand‘. Then he was in hospital – but appears to have learned little from the experience. It certainly didn’t appear to increase his determination to practice prudent infection control. A Government that didn’t even bother thinking what COVID would do to care homes, until the mounting death toll made it unavoidable. A Secretary of State for Health who broke the COVID rules and resigned. Vast amounts of money paid to poorly vetted suppliers, to do at huge expense what other countries managed far more economically. The handling of Brexit.
I can only begin to imagine the lurid frescoes Lorenzetti would need to paint to capture this litany of maladministration, self-interest and contempt. ‘Bad Government’ is too weak an epithet for what we are living through, experiencing and enduring.