In 1535, Sir Thomas More was beheaded in London on the order of the monarch whom he served with much dedication and devotion: Henry VIII. The story is well known and has been the subject of many scholarly books, an award-winning play, and an Oscar-winning movie. More has been venerated in the Catholic Church as a saint, and held in the highest esteem in England as a man of great principle, faith, and courage. More was, by all accounts, a man of great intelligence and wisdom. He attended Oxford and was one of the keenest young scholars of that school. He studied law, theology, and languages. He wrote scholarly treatises, and political tracts that expounded on a perfect society. His work "Utopia" is perhaps best known.
When Henry VIII decided that, in order to annul his first marriage and take up with the young and beautiful Anne Boleyn, a series of events caused him to reform the Church in England and create his own institution which would rubber stamp his plans. Most in England were too frightened of the powerful Henry to stand up to him. Those who dared to do so were eliminated. Evidence suggests that More, as Henry's chancellor, allowed several "heretics" or political opponents to be burned at the stake: hardly a bright spot on an otherwise brilliant curriculum vitae.
But, eventually, More ran afoul of Henry's intentions. When events reached the breaking point, Henry had More arrested, charged with "great ingratitude" which eventually became treason, and tried. The evidence produced at the trial was inconclusive at best until the perjered testimony of Richard Rich. Henry got his wish, and the "problem" of Sir Thomas More was solved with the stroke of an axe.
Fast-forward to 2012, and to the city of Toronto. Mayor Rob Ford, embroiled in a transit controversy with several members of his own council, finds it suddenly difficult to work with the TTC general manager, Gary Webster. The issue is whether subways are preferred to Light Rail Transit. It has proven to be a dispute of larger proportions, however, as the mayor sees any opposition to his plans of subway-only transit as signs of treason at the hands of enemies. When a bureaucrat of Webster's stature openly opposes the mayor's intentions, heads must roll. This week, Webster was summarily dismissed "without cause" despite his exemplary work record and almost universal admiration for his abilities. Webster is gone, and the mayor will proceed with his plans.
Clearly, today's situation is preferable only in the sense that no actual blood was shed, and Webster's head is still functioning atop his shoulders. But the similarities must be obvious even to the most ardent supporters of Mr. Ford. It is apparent that, if an administrator disagrees with his political master, he must either shut up about his concerns or be prepared to be eliminated if he goes public. In a manner of speaking, Webster was "executed" simply at the pleasure of his political boss.
What does this mean? If governments do not allow those whose expertise and experience are originally valued so highly to speak their minds and offer opinions based on that expertise and experience, then why have them at all? Must administrators be puppets and lap dogs of their political masters? Why not, then, let the master simply rule by dictat and abolish all trappings of democracy and professionalism? And who, in their right mind, would work in an atmosphere created by people such as Henry VIII or Rob Ford?
Mr. Ford may think he has won an important battle in his transit wars. But he should pay attention to history. After Henry deposed and eliminated More, Henry became more and more tyrannical and cruel. We are all aware of the portraits of a king in his later years, unchallenged by any opposition, bloated with the excesses of his harsh and egotistical rule. Henry may have purged himself of all opposition, but, in the end, he died a horrible and painful death, caused as much by his own inflated vision of his personal greatness. He may not have died of syphillis, but the cankers and sores that wouldn't heal are undisputed. I don't wish the same actual fate for Rob Ford, but he should beware the hubris that comes with such sleazy and unnecessary rule.