Dot Wordsworth


Mind Your Language on a strange metamorphosis

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Ralph Bathurst was accused shortly after his death in 1704 of being ‘suspected of Hypocrisy and of mean Complyance’. I am not quite sure what particular hypocrisy was meant, but the accuser was Thomas Hearne, a cranky but principled antiquary in the mould of Anthony Wood. Hearne resented not being able to accept appointments such as librarian of the Bodleian because he would not take the oath to King William after he took the throne in 1689. Bathurst had felt able to accept the Deanery of Wells while retaining the presidency of Trinity College, Oxford, so he was obviously a little flexible, even if he was a great man, a co-founder of the Royal Society and, as a qualified physician, a participant in the remarkable resuscitation of Anne Greene, who had been hanged at Oxford for murdering her child.

Anyway, there is no doubt that compliance was regarded as ‘mean’ and to be found in the same neck of the woods as hypocrisy. John Evelyn spoke of ‘the most servile complyances’ and Samuel Johnson of ‘disingenuous compliances’. Compliance was contrasted with honest consent.

Today we are bidden to meet the demands of compliance. Companies have departments dedicated to it. I came across a newspaper reporting as though it were news that the Malta Waste Reduction Awards 2017 had commended Ireland as ‘best practice leader on compliance and recycling’. Imagine. Then this week I saw a van painted in the livery of PHS Compliance, a company ready ‘to ensure your business is safe and compliant’. I am sure they excel at checking the working order of defibrillators. But in less principled circles, compliance means ticking boxes.

Business travellers fill in online quizzes purporting to make them compliant with risk assessments. Lorry drivers attend one-day courses to comply with regulations. Hospitals refuse to tell a wife enquiring on the telephone how her husband is, because data protection must be complied with. It matters not whether measures with which we comply really make us safer or more competent. We must comply with regulations just as Bathurst had to take the oath before he could become a head of house at Oxford.