Seeking inspiration for my new role as chair of the Solace management board, I was much taken with his public statements.
First, he renewed a call for a strong commitment to the ‘covenant’ between the nation and its armed forces. I’m not going to make any daft comparisons between those who put their lives at risk to maintain peace or and those the tabloids like to call ‘town hall bureaucrats’, but there is one thing we have in common.
Most of those who enter public service do so with a sense of moral purpose. And they quite like that moral purpose to be recognised. They also like their willingness to serve others, whether by way of dangers faced by courageous forces, extra hours worked or opportunities forgone by the massed ranks of local public servants, to be remembered when the debate rages about how much of the public purse should be committed in these directions.
The second thing he talked about was the importance of ‘nation-building’. He called for soldiers to be equipped with new skills so that they could more readily engage with this new set of tasks. Again there are silly comparisons to be avoided. Sir Richard was discussing the recreation of civil society where it has broken down.
Nevertheless local government staff are at the forefront of sustaining civilised, orderly, attractive, successful local areas within the shores of our own nation.
This is work we do on a daily basis, not only because of myriad tasks that Parliament has given us, but through the civilised, decent, compassionate and intelligent way in which we perform these tasks. Local government is not just about place-shaping, but about nation-building.
The third thing that interested me is that Sir Richard should claim any space at all in the public debate. Senior staff in the armed forces have spent a lifetime taking orders and practising obedience and loyalty. Yet it is all too clear the nation depends on professional soldiers and they will have a reasonable expectation that their senior colleagues will represent their views and argue their cause.
Politicians will inevitably get itchy if the hired hands appear to be claiming a legitimacy for views that should properly be limited to those who have sought and achieved a democratic mandate. But in 2008 I doubt there are many who think politicians have exclusive wisdom. A mature democracy will find a place for opinions from those who do, as well as from those who decide what should be done.
So I was very grateful to Sir Richard for his early advice, albeit scarcely aimed at Solace . Solace’s role can be to continue to argue for the covenant between citizens and their public servants. We can speak up for local government staff’s role in nation-building and can claim an appropriate part in public policy debates where we have experience, energy and even some ideas to share.