The reluctant pope is a valuable lesson in public service

At some point near the end of the last millennium, I was shown around Rome by two Roman Catholic friends of mine. The experience was a blur of churches, statues, paintings, fountains and mouldering palazzos interspersed with large quantities of pizza so crispy that it has slightly spoiled my every subsequent encounter with the dish. As with heroin, sometimes it’s better not to know what you’re missing.

It was an ecclesiastically skewed tour – the eternal city’s ancient and illustrious pagan republic barely got a look-in – but a lot of fun for someone like me who loves old stuff. I envied my friends their ability, in any given church, to identify the various saints by their telltale kit, like heroes from the Marvel universe. I swore I would develop the skill myself – it would make going around churches so much more fun – but all I seem to know now is that Saint Peter has keys and Saint Mark a lion, so I’m no closer to spotting Saint Boniface from his nunchucks or Saint Ethel from her basket of cheeses, or working out whether a stained glass window depicts the ascension, the annunciation, the transfiguration or the exfoliation.

I remember one thing only: an image of a man from many centuries ago who had just been made pope having to be dragged forcibly towards the pontifical throne. My friends explained that this particular pope hadn’t wanted to be pope at all. This humble servant of Christ felt unworthy of such an honour, and the grandeur of the office repelled him, so he assumed it with great reluctance and only at the insistence of other church elders convinced of his godliness.

I reckoned it was virtue-signalling. It seemed clear to me that, if you’ve devoted your life to the church and risen through its hierarchy and then they make you pope, your kneejerk response is unlikely to be an uncomplicated “Oh no!” That would suggest unusually low self-esteem for a cardinal. Maybe you’d have mixed feelings but, somewhere in that mix, there’s bound to be a heaped spoonful of “I’m the bloody pope! Get in!”

So I told them I bet he’d been mad keen to be pope really but figured it didn’t look holy to seem like it. It’s not the way to build confidence. It stands to reason that the best person to be pope is unlikely to be the person most desperate to be pope. So, if you are desperate to be pope, it makes sense to conceal that fact. If you don’t even do that, it shows you’re not only desperate to be pope but you’re also stupid and so would make an even worse pope than an intelligent man who’s desperate to be pope.

Sir Robert Peel conceived the British police as a resolutely non-military organisation

I was thinking about the appointment of popes because the selection processes for authority figures have been all over the news. Should Nadhim Zahawi have been appointed chairman of the Conservative party, what with his tax irregularities? Should Richard Sharp be chairman of the BBC, what with his role in facilitating Boris Johnson’s lifestyle? And most important of all, where the hell are they getting policemen from these days? They say it’s a sign of old age when police officers seem to be getting younger. What’s it a sign of when they seem to be getting rapier?

It should go without saying (but doesn’t in these defensive times) that the police officers we’ve recently been hearing most about aren’t representative of the service. Still, it shows that, for the role of police officer as much as that of pope, wanting the job isn’t necessarily a sign that you should have it. The quality of wanting to be a police officer is something we need to be wary of, even as we appoint a police force exclusively from those who possess it. After all, while it might be workable to have the occasional pope dutifully doing the job in spite of his own personal wishes, you can’t force people to join the police just because they might be less problematic than some of those who actively apply.

Of course, some people want to be police officers for entirely good reasons; some people want to for largely good reasons; some for partly good reasons and some for bad reasons. As a realist, I’d say we should be hoping for a force composed, as exclusively as possible, from the first three groups. But is that happening? It was reported last week that the Metropolitan police still vets recruits using mostly online assessments and without holding face-to-face interviews where the applicants’ motives for wanting to become an officer are discussed. Under pressure from the government, the force has recruited more than 4,000 new officers in the last five years. It feels like there’s scope for quite a few of them to be the proverbial “bad apples”.

Meanwhile, the chair of the committee on standards in public life, Lord Evans of Weardale, has questioned police leadership, saying that in order to reform its “toxic” culture, it needs to address its “shut up, do what you’re told and salute” approach. Evans ran MI5 for six years, so he’s unlikely to be a softie. He talked about a meeting when he was working with the National Crime Agency, where the “bosses had a little sign saying ‘command team’… We didn’t have that sort of model in our service… people felt that they could argue back”.

The thought of police officers indulging themselves in lame little trappings of authority is worryingly plausible. Those inclined to join the police are drawn to that kind of thing like actors to infidelity. It’s a tendency that must relentlessly be reined in, as Sir Robert Peel realised when he conceived the British police as a resolutely non-military organisation: “The police are the public and the public are the police.” Its hierarchy is secondary to each individual constable’s sworn duty to uphold the law. No order from a senior officer can countermand that responsibility.

That’s the principle anyway, but it’s a subtle one and it doesn’t feel like we’ve got a government that’s great at defending that sort of thing. Ethical underpinnings aren’t its strong point. We have too many ministers who, if they needed to be forcibly dragged anywhere, it would be away from, not towards, the trappings of power.

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