The Blog

Moral authority: use it or lose it

Understanding the moral authority can win over an unconvinced audience.

But if you’re asking people to stick to the rules, you’d better stick to them yourself.

On the same day the new ‘rule of six’ laws came into place, the government confirmed it would be forging ahead with its Internal Market Brexit bill.

A bill that the UK government admits breaks international law.

It’s the latest in a series of perceived double-standard.

All of which appear to be directly affecting the will of the British public to obey the law.

And that’s the real danger of failing to value the moral authority.

It’s an area we explore in depth on our media training courses.

Read on for what we can take from the UK Government’s actions.

All roads lead back to Durham

Moral authority use it or lose it Pink Elephant Durham

Back in May, nearly 4 million of us tuned in as Boris Johnson’s top advisor Dominic Cummings faced the wrath of the media after his ill-judged lockdown trip to Durham.

He reportedly travelled there to self-isolate, taking a number of stops along the way – and a famous diversion via Barnard Castle to “test his eyesight”.

He remarked after the trip that he had “no regrets” over the “legal and reasonable” trip.

The legality of the trip continued to divide opinion after his TV appearance.

But  the perceived lack of common sense hit hard.

It seemed hugely unfair that a top government employee was able to travel hundreds of miles to self-isolate at his father-in-law’s house, without rebuke.

Whilst bereaved family members were unable to attend their loved ones’ funerals.

And imminent mothers were left to endure the final stages of childbirth without the support of their partner.

Back to Brexit

Moral authority use it or lose it Pink Elephant Brexit

Fast-forward to September 8 and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, was asked whether the new Internal Market bill (which will pave the way for internal powers related to Brexit) would break international law.

His answer seemed to take his own party by surprise, with an unusually audible sigh from his backbenchers:

“Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We’re taking the powers to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect … in a certain very tightly defined circumstance.”

10/10 for answering the question directly.

0/10 for appreciating how that looks.

Especially when, the very next day, the government announced that anyone meeting in a group larger than six would be breaking the law.

Political, moral and legal authority

Moral authority use it or lose it Pink Elephant Rishi Sunak

Now I believe Boris Johnson has the political authority to make that decision.

He has the largest share of election votes of a Conservative Prime Minister since the 1970s.

And he’s the person charged with an impossible balancing act of health vs economy as we face a deadly virus.

One that nearly killed him.

Whether he has the legal authority is questionable (and certainly made less clear by the resignation from the UK government’s law officer for Scotland, Lord Keen, over the decision).

But the moral authority seems way out of sight.

That sense of “doing the right thing” we all use as a guide to our daily decision-making on a daily basis.

The latest in a series of ‘bad optics’, as Dominic Cummings may call it.

Two days previously, Johnson met with a room of at least 50 MPs in a room clearly signposted as having a limit of 29 people.

40 minutes later, he tweeted:

“Gatherings of more than 30 people are illegal. Breaking the rules could cost you thousands.”

He annoyed others in April by thanking foreign NHS staff for saving his life and then days later backing a law to restrict immigration to the UK for low-paid workers.

And confusingly urged everyone to “do the right thing” in July by wearing face-masks, while his top aides including Chancellor Rishi Sunak were pictured maskless.

Why is the moral authority so important?

Moral authority use it or lose it Pink Elephant surgical mask

In 2017, when Dominic Cummings addressed a Tory party conference, he famously remarked that

“People think…the Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about…poorer people”.

And regardless of the intention behind the decisions, a large number are now perceiving the imposition of Covid rules from the Conservative-majority UK government as unequal.

One rule for us and another for them.

Clearly, others have got it wrong too.

The Scottish Government’s former Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Catherine Calderwood, fell foul of the new rules after taking two lockdown trips to her second home in Fife.

The EU’s Trade Commission, Phil Hogan, resigned after attending a dinner in Ireland with more than 80 guests, shortly after the Irish government had announced a maximum of six could meet indoors.

Moral authority use it or lose it Pink Elephant Phil Hogan

Other high-profile breaches have involved ministers in Australia, New Zealand and a Belgian prince.

In each case, the moral authority of those communicating restrictions on movement is eroded.

In many cases, forcing resignations.

We’re in the midst of what’s, for many of us, the most profound, prolonged struggle of our lives.

Health (physical and mental), money, relationships, our future, what we tell our kids.

It’s a rocky road.

And we’re being asked to make sacrifices every day for the good of those around us, something the vast majority are committed to every day.

But every time there’s a high-profile breach, it’s another reason to question the plan.

Another reason to consider the fairness of what’s being asked.

Reclaiming the moral authority

Moral authority use it or lose it Pink Elephant Boris Johnson

There’s every chance that regardless of the above, our patience would have been heavily tested after six months of restrictions.

But each government breach simply fuels the fire.

To reverse the damage caused by the above is an uphill task.

To me, it has to start with a reversal of the decision to forge ahead with the Internal Market bill.

A chance to set things straight, to reaffirm the importance of international law and send a strong signal to all of us that everyone has to play by the same rules.

That we all hold moral authority, which is strengthened by our resolve to stick to clear rules, every single day.

Aligned with clear rules, perhaps that will give us all the renewed spirit we need to stick with the plan and prevent a second national lockdown.

One that Johnson himself has conceded would be “disastrous”.


Andrew McFarlan is Managing Director of Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos in Moral Authority: Use it or Lose it blog by Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office / CC BYMinistry of Housing, Communities and Local Govt / CC BY-NDUSDAgov / CC BYTeaMeister / CC BYChatham House, London / CC BY; all on
Moral authority blog edited by Andrew McFarlan.



17th September 2020 Featured in: Blog By:

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