George Herbert should have been on the Chilcot Inquiry! At least he would have known how to ask the right questions. His poem Constancie sets out in searching detail the real criteria by which we should judge honesty in our selves and others.
Who is the honest man ? he asks, and then goes on to set out a series of bench-marks all of which are astonishingly pertinent to our judgment of today’s proceedings at the Iraq inquiry. He asks us to look for a leader whose pursuit of integrity neither force, nor fawning can unpin from giving all their due
Those two terms force and fawning go right to the heart of this inquiry. What was the influence of force, fire-power and power-politics on behalf of both Iraq and America? How much fawning was there? Was Tony Blair Bush’s wise restrainer or his poodle? Was he ‘unpinned’ by either of these two f-words from giving all their due? The families of Soldiers who died in Iraq are rightly present in the room at this inquiry, for they have a strong case for saying that they have not ‘been given all their due’, not yet in terms of honesty.
And Honesty is the next topic in Herbert’s masterful inquiry. He asks us to sift every claim and to look for someone Whose honesty is not So loose or easy, that a ruffling wind Can blow away, or glittering look it blind Was Tony Blair that man? Or were there glittering looks that blinded him? That’s what this inquiry is meant to uncover.
Now Blair himself might seize on the next item on Herbert’s agenda, as a summary of his own position. He clearly believes himself to be someone ‘Who, when great trials come, Nor seeks, nor shuns them; but does calmly stay, Till he the thing and the example weigh.. ‘I had the integrity’, he is claiming, ‘to weigh all things and come to a judgment, I asked you to trust my judgement then and I’m asking you to trust it now’. Certainly that’s what he believes of himself, that his integrity is unimpeached. But whereas the present members of the inquiry seem ready to take that assessment at face-value without further question, George Herbert asks us to probe a little more closely and suggests that if someone wants to claim that kind of integrity and ask us to trust their judgment then we should ask whether they are a man Whom none can work or woo To use in any thing a trick or sleight; For above all things he abhors deceit: His words and works and fashion too All of a piece, and all are clear and straight. We are entitled to ask, says Herbert, whether the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the ringing speeches that led parliament to vote for war were put together using ‘any trick or sleight’ or whether were ‘all of a piece’, ‘all clear and straight’
I give below the text of a poem which should have been given to every member of the inquiry and written in letters of gold over its door, but with the proviso that if the strong light of Herbert’s verse is to be trained on our politicians, we should, in justice, also turn it back and train it on ourselves.
Who is the honest man?
He that does still and strongly good pursue,
To God, his neighbor, and himself most true:
Whom neither force nor fawning can
Unpin, or wrench from giving all their due.
Whose honesty is not
So loose or easy, that a ruffling wind
Can blow away, or glittering look it blind:
Who rides his sure and even trot,
While the world now rides by, now lags behind.
Who, when great trials come,
Nor seeks, nor shuns them; but does calmly stay,
Till he the thing and the example weigh:
All being brought into a sum,
What place or person calls for, he does pay.
Whom none can work or woo
To use in any thing a trick or sleight;
For above all things he abhors deceit:
His words and works and fashion too
All of a piece, and all are clear and straight.
Who never melts or thaws
At close temptations: when the day is done,
His goodness sets not, but in dark can run:
The sun to others writes their laws,
And is their virtue; Virtue is his Sun…
…Whom nothing can procure,
When the wide world runs bias from his will,
To writhe his limbs, and share, not mend the ill,
This is the Mark-man, safe and sure,
Who still is right, and prays to be so still.