Philip Mawer

Philip Mawer

There are very few people in the upper ranks of the Church of England to whom you would entrust the running of the family whelk stall. This is not entirely their fault. Managerial competence and a gift for salesmanship aren’t normally the talents that drive people into a career as a full-time Christian. Yet as the Church of England has shruinnk, in money, numbers, and prestige over the last decade, the quality of its central administration has actually improved quite notably, and a great deal of the credit for this is due to Philip Mawer, plucked from the extraordinary job of secretary general of the general synod to become Elizabeth Filkin’s successor as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the man who must keep MPs up to the ethical mark.

It is a job which requires a remarkable mixture of political skill and rectitude: to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, in the words of Mawer’s present boss. Though there has been a lot of speculation that he lacks one or another of these attributes, and won’t rock the boat in the way that his predecessor did, this may well be unjust. Mawer is loyal to institutions and capable of ruthlessness in their defence: he has been a civil servant all his working life. But that does not mean he is easy to bully into doing what he thinks wrong, nor susceptible to the gentle corruptions of friendship and the old boy network. If the House of Commons believes it has found a man who will put the interests of the club members above everything else, it is profoundly mistaken.

The central parts of the Church of England when Mawer arrived were in fact in a state of genteel corruption. His flamboyant predecessor, the Reverend Sir Derek Pattinson was outwardly a figure of comically old-fashioned respectability, who dressed as if he were a civil servant in 1914 and behaved as if nothing of significance had happened since about 1953. But he was also a hard-drinking homosexual, who went rather off the rails after his mother died I his fifties, and after leaving his post went on an extended freebie around Southern Africa with his boyfriend, a synod member later jailed for stealing from the inmates of an old people’s home he owned. The whole thing was deliciously absurd: it supplied me with the only chance I suppose I shall ever have to talk in Lambeth Palace with a man flying out of his mind on cocaine, but it was also bad for the Church of England; and it is wholly unimaginable under Mawer.

In his quiet way, he was put in to clean all that up, and to produce an organisation that was sober, competent and organised. It ought to be obvious that he doesn’t tolerate corruption; but he doesn’t tolerate amateurism either. There is no one in the Church of England to whom it would be less pleasant to report failure, partly because it’s hard to imagine him ever losing his temper noisily. His quiet private rages really frighten people. His manner is public is equable, witty, and friendly, without being in the least revealing. Indeed, his manner is so polite that it’s only afterwards, when you look at what he actually said, rather than being charmed by the way he said it, that you realise he’s actually about as yielding as Don Vito Corleone: when he was first interviewed after getting Elizabeth Filkin’s job, he said:

"Co-operation is essential from MPs, and indeed others, if the system is to work and I believe that it is in MPs' interests to co- operate. The critical point is that while MPs may appoint me and pay me, they don't own my conscience, they don't own my brain." Later, he threatened quite calmly to resign if he ran into the same kind of obstruction as his predecessor, Elizabeth Filkin: "Obviously I want to work closely with the select committee and I would hope and expect that there would not be the sort of difficulties which had been alleged. If there were, I would first take my concerns to the Speaker and the Commons in general and then, obviously, if I was not satisfied I would have to consider my position. But I don't expect that to happen."

One doesn’t know if this is what MPs thought they were getting. The general view is that if people come from the Church they will be pushovers. But before he went to the Church of England, Mawer was a quite remarkably successful civil servant in what is, in the nicest possible way, a savagely competitive environment. He made his name neogotiating with the Prison Officers’ Association — not a job for a fluffy bunny. He is less flamboyant than Sir Humphrey Appleby, but no less dangerous or determined. In fact he was just about at the top of his profession when he jumped sideways to run the central administration of the Church of England. By the time he was 42, he had had become an under secretary at the Cabinet Office, after a period of Principal Private Secretary to Douglas Hurd — with whom he later collaborated on a commission to try and remodel the Archbishop of Canterbury’s job so some future holder of the post might be something more than a frantically overworked figurehead.

Someone who has worked with him in the Church of England says it took years to realise just how tough and loyal he is. "He could give out a list of notices about people who had parked their cars wrongly and the Synod would be in fits of laughter." He can turn routine jobs like that into a sort of stand-up comic turn, very dry, not in the least bit camp, but really enjoyable. And then, all of a sudden, when he believes that amateurism is getting in the way of the proper smooth running of the system, or that someone is attacking one of his civil servants, he will suddenly, just as politely, turn quite savage.

When he came to the Church of England, in 1990, it had not real governing body. The General Synod can make real English laws: it’s the only body in this country outside Parliament that can do so, though parliament must approve the laws that the Synod proposed. But it finds making laws easier than making decisions. There are some people who think that it is wrong in principle for Christians to vote on disputed questions and more who think it is wrong in practice if the vote goes against them. Civil servants find ministers hard enough to steer. They regard parliament with distant horror, as the faithful might regard the Wrath of God. But in the Synod, Mawer had no "ministers" to buffer him from parliament; and he did a fine job of steering it anyway.

Eventually, the Synod (which has about 550 members) was decapitated as being too unwieldy, and the little subcommittees right at the top which, like a dinosaur’s brain, constituted the obscure and tiny corner where the decisions were all taken, were changed into something called the Archbishops’ Council. This had nineteen elected members, so it was also far too big to be much use. But Mawer ran it — sorry, facilitated the Archbishops who were running it — with deft skill. According to one member, he could take an hour’s confused waffling, and sum it all up in a single paragraph that hinted at what needed to be done without ever saying so out loud, and which did not so much paper over the cracks as paper so beautifully between them that only a really close watcher would even notice they existed.

In other ways, he seems entirely conventional: a grammar school boy who has been married since 1972 to a doctor. They have three children. In Who’s Who, he cautiously lists his recreations as "family and friends" which quite ignores the fact that he takes part every winter in the pantomime in the Hertfordshire village where he lives, and is, by all accounts the best and funniest Dame they have ever had. The rest of the time, he’s not really funny at all.

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