Are we living in a post responsibility society?

There is now plenty of evidence, we appear to be living in a post responsibility society, or at least a post responsibility polity . The question is, if it starts with politics then where does it end?

It isn’t news that politicians try to avoid responsibility, perhaps what has changed is their expectation that once caught out they will find that they have to respond to the consequences of their actions. 

Respond to consequences is a polite phrase for resign in disgrace. 

A carrot and stick form of motivation doesn’t work if you only offer people carrots.  

Responsibility is a notion that goes along with the privilege of high office, it embraces the notion of duty, it follows the concept ot service , the notion that you are not just doing whatever job it is because you want the salary and and your moment in the limelight.

I’m not going to suggest that this is applied to every politician, I know many and I understand them enough that they balance their ambition with their own understanding of the responsibility that this requires of them. They have a moral compass, not a one directional  moral GPS. 

But I suppose my notion is that if those who don’t accept responsibility for their actions are high enough up the greasy pole then their example is one that spreads not just within their like but within the society for which they are exemplars. 

Historically you can perhaps look back at Thatcher. Some would suggest her politics gave greed legitimacy. You could argue that her economic mantra and the behaviour that led to the bank led crash in 2008 are inextricably linked . As a society, or rather as those who could in society, we tolerated  that mantra because it gave some of us a short term edge and financial return. You could argue that those who didn’t get that edge are reflected in the discontent that brought us populism and Brexit. 

We certainly got the banks and the financial institutions that we deserved. 

Over the pond last week we saw a poignant, affecting and desperately painful  spectacle of the two top political leaders; Harris and Biden and their spouses dressed in black and dipping their heads as the hideous figure 500,000 deaths from COVID was recognised. It was a recognition of political failure to serve the public. Not THEIR failure but the failure of politics to serve. It is hard to recognise failure if you don’t recognise the cause and for that reason Trump is incapable of any kind remorse .

500,000, it is an appalling price they have paid for a deficit in political leadership. Appalling but not quite as bad a figure as in the UK. With 20.32% of the population of the USA if we were proportionate to the USA then  we would have around 101,000 deaths , we have over 120,000. Not only is our death toll the highest in Europe it is proportionally worse than the figures of a country where it is widely accepted, the key politician in charge of the country behaved with unapologetic cavalier disregard.

It is a sobering thought we have a worse death toll than someone who didn’t try . 

I am certainly not suggesting that politicians  in the UK acted with the same cavalier disregard as Trump, but it is a sobering thought that we have a higher per capita death rate than in a country where the leader didn’t try . Do our politicians feel that performance is something where they carry personal responsibility ?

The problem with that sentence is that the evidence seems to suggest that some do not and not just individually but collectively, and additionally we are getting much worse at holding them to account. 

Not a politician but in an a age when the differentiation between politicians their  wives husbands and special advisers is a bit blurred shall we start  with Dominic Cummings? Possibly the most palpably wrong trip that has ever been taken to Durham and yet ….no consequences. Instead a collective reinvention of the limits of discretion to explain away the unexplainable . 

Then we have a politician who gives contracts for ferry operations to an organisation that have  no ships, and who remarkably is recycled for high public office a matter of months after that debacle, but  thankfully rejected . 

In Scotland we will see a judgement that might conclude that the First Minister breached the Ministerial code, potentially a resigning offence should it be proven. Aside from the fact that she vehemently denies it,  why should she resign? Her conservative opponents are showing a hypocrisy of staggering proportions because she has not just one but several cases of conservative precedent to quote.

Priti Patel? Serial offender it is alleged in bullying staff, breach of ministerial code .PPI bought from people who don’t make PPI, undisguised cronyism . Fraudulent claims of industrial proportions running to billions of tax payers money for “ bounce back “ loans . Consequences ? Zero . Responsibility recognised? None . 

Then there is Matt Hancock. Hancock is  to the conservatives what the former  Soviet Union would recognise as a “ useful idiot.” He can absorb vast amounts of pressure without complaint, can be relied upon to play to the message and can be discarded without fear of damage to the rest of the team .  Protected for now  until his utility is spent . He acted it seems unlawfully in PPI provision . So? Well the Conservative press, that is to say most of the press, run distraction . A resigning offence that is swept off the front pages by the exploits of the highly photogenic and  ever useful Harry and Meghan. Responsibility zero. His punishment will come later when he is elevated to  the House of Lords. 

But we must be honest, we bring this upon ourselves . Even when we know that the “facts” behind the Brexit story were lies we return the same party to office. Frankly we deserve no better .

The concern though is deeper than our leaders. Where they lead others follow. If you institutionalise greed as good as Thatcher did then why would people not act with greed as a motivation ?

If you embrace cronyism with relish why would you expect others at a different part of the food chain to act differently? 

If you accept some lies because they suit your position then what lies can you legitimately not accept? 

For me it seems to start with responsibility at every level. If you accept that you are responsible for your actions and there are consequences that follow then that sets the tone . The problem is that once you allow the standard to slip then it creates a chain reaction . 

 Part of the problem is that as a society we have the collective memory of a non political gnat . Appalled by what they see many people do not feel that politics is relevant to them and do not engage . Cognisant of that politicians, particularly now, are engaged in “last fact “ reality positioning  . This works on the notion that people who vote have close to zero political memory. Present the last successful fact firmly enough and they will neglect to remember what came before. If  you control the processes that holds people to account then you can control the consequences of your actions .

How many times have we heard the phrase “ now is not the time ?”

Translation? The Vaccine programme is working well, push the benefits of that firmly enough and who cares about what came before? If people don’t care then responsibility for what came before becomes redundant . 

How can this be reversed? 

It  seems to me that one choice is to examine the polity that serves us and question if it is fit for purpose. If we consider that it is then we have to accept the results that we can see now. If we consider that it isn’t then we have choices; apathy and  its consequences or change. 

I get asked “when nothing ever changes why are you politically active?” My answer always is that I don’t accept the premise that nothing changes, things are always changing, our responsibility is to make it change in the right direction.

Responsibility matters .

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  1. I’d just like to draw attention to the disparity between England and the other nations. Using today’s figures (courtesy of TravellingTabby) England deaths 107,388 or 1908 per million of population, Scotland 7,053 or 1291 per million, Wales 5,263, 1669 per million and NI 2,043, 1079 per million.
    Scotland’s record could have been better if we had had power to control our own borders. NI clearly benefitted from the Irish sea barrier. Wales like Scotland were too much affected by what England did or didn’t do.

  2. Yes, the UK numbers are bad, or should I say sad… but it was completely foreseeable. And this is why the politicians should be held accountable. Being a minister or otherwise in charge should come with personal responsibilities… and it should come with liabilities, if necessary even with legal consequences, not simply stepping down from office and shortly later taking over 6-figure salaried jobs in ‘friendly’ industry.
    I heard someone say in an interview recently (can’t remember who it was): ‘Success has many parents but failure is an orphan.’
    This describes the UK situation quite well… nobody wants to accept responsibility for what happened and that so many people died because action was late, insufficient and in some instances simply wrong.
    I am sick of the excuses… ‘unprecedented’… ‘unforeseeable’… ‘nobody could know’.
    Well, firstly, it is not unprecedented, because pandemics are nothing new (also we should probably better get used to them, especially if we return to business as usual).
    Secondly, the developments were foreseeable, very early in January last year.
    Thirdly, one could know.
    Neither do I consider myself a clairvoyant nor would this apply to quick reacting governments, for example Taiwan or New Zealand. It is simply not plausible that the very same alerts I received (as many other subscribers to publicly accessible infectious disease information portals did) and which stem from a network where also government scientists, ministers and vets exchange information, has not been received by the UK government advisors. These alerts got alarm bells ringing in many countries and several immediately got their emergency plans ready.
    They also got my own alarm bells ringing and the advice (via email and phone calls) to friends and family around the world went out in the second week of January 2020, telling them to be prepared to ‘hunker down’, increase emergency supplies of essential food from the common 2-week to a 4 week supply in case of lockdowns, to reduce contacts, keep a distance from others, not attend any gatherings, buy or make some facemasks and so forth.
    The ones in other countries listened… and their regions were actually hit shortly afterwards, far earlier than the UK. Of my British friends, unfortunately many did not listen, they thought I was nuts. Surely, if this ‘thing’ in China could pose any danger to us here in the UK, our government would be the first to know and provide advice.
    Well, either our government had no clue, had the wrong advisors, were sitting on their hands or simply couldn’t be bothered. Which one was it? All of them are not acceptable.
    How can it be, that well-informed members of the public and some other governments actually did know and did react? And ours did not… at least not until it was clear that the death toll would be horrendous if no action were taken?

    Will the government take on responsibilities now? And will they make sure, the correct action is taken? Or will we have to worry that the same mistakes are repeated again?
    At the moment, they concentrate on the vaccine roll-out. This is quite a good thing… but the vaccine alone will not yet allow a return to normality as it was before. It is very dangerous when people like Jenny Harries claim that we may be able to abandon masks later in summer. There are a number of reasons why there might be a summer ‘lull’ (like last year) but it is far too early to dangle such carrots in front of the public, raising expectations which may be too high.

    The thing is, doing worse than a country where the leader was useless and more concerned of his hairdo than of public health, is bad enough. Accepting no responsibilities, makes it worse. But one can still trump it by carrying on…

    • Harries comments are i my opinion highly irresponsible . It beggars belief that people think that we could even consider ” normality” until we have everyone vaccinated.

      I find it interesting that the UK has decided that suppressing this disease it impossible, it nearly was in Scotland before people began to unwind and behave as if it was over.

      I leaves me wondering what would gave happened if we did not ave a 4 nations approach and we had borders to use as a disease suppression mechanism. Would we have done things differently ?

  3. Yesterday evening, watching the telly, there were repeated adverts for holidays abroad, and right across the screen, the words ….”Book now for the summer.” I exploded – appalled at the folly and irresponsibility of this.
    People are very, very suggestible, the advertising executives know that. Some will see those words and think – “Oh – better book quickly, or they might get booked up .“

    And, if they are allowed to, will they then take a holiday abroad, possibly to somewhere with less stringent rules than have finally been brought in in Britain, and come back with ….
    When they come back, will they still be made to stay in hotel isolation for the required time? And remember, this is in only a few month’s time – it’s March tomorrow – Spring, which is followed by Summer.

    For goodness sake – why are the advertising people making and placing these ads? And why are they getting away with doing so?

    But – yes – it is up to us to see those ads, damn the advertisers, and not plan a holiday “For the summer.”

    We were meaning to go to Skye last Spring, cancelled when Covid reared its ugly head. Thought at the time, maybe this Spring – no way. Maybe, very cautiously, next Spring? And that’s only for going to Skye!

    I’ll stop now – I am furious about those ads – and, as is often the case with me, even more furious because I can’t see what I can do about it.
    Have those people no conscience? As I keep saying, it’s their world too. We have to work together.


  4. Have to agree with you Bernie. The notion of overseas holidays is astonishing right now.

    This is from someone who retired to travel, We are gently looking at a Scottish holiday in the summer if trends remain as they are. But we remain flexible so we would only consider this is it is approved and safe.

    What concerned us however were the trends on the motor- caravan blogs . People in England speaking about coming up at Easter but people in Scotland saying that they would drive into England because the rules there were ” better.”

    There appears to be zero policing of this from the anecdotes of friends who have every reason to legitimately travel over the border.

  5. Professor Woolhouse recently said that the impression the Scottish government gave of the virus being close to elimination last summer, was wrong. FInally, someone spoke the truth. It was here all along. But: we were still benefitting from the lockdown before, public health is in general better in summer (due to several factors), there might be some seasonal effect in the spread of the virus, more outdoor activities instead of indoor meetings, the elderly remaining rather cautious, hence more younger folk (often asymptomatic) affected which were obviously not tested and so forth. The virus was spreading under our radar, perhaps in lower numbers… but still quietly. Which we noticed once autumn came.
    Whilst we have started vaccinating, the risk of mutations is high… and the pressure for the virus to try and escape the vaccine grows.
    To allow the promotion of international travel under these circumstances is not acceptable, I agree with all of you here. And I would even go so far that travel within the country should probably best be avoided. A holiday at home is perhaps not a preferred choice if you are stuck with 5 little children in a high rise flat in cramped living conditions… but I would assume the ones who now feel the urge (and can afford) to travel, are a different group.
    In any way, in one case there should still be parks and other greenspaces nearby, in the other case people could make use of their balcony or garden.
    In Orkney we have the benefit of living somewhere, where others enjoy holidays. Hence we are in the best (and safest!) position to holiday at home.

    To be honest: Personally I would not go anywhere, not even if someone paid me!

    I am dreading an influx from tourist from ‘down south’ (England) this summer… which cannot be controlled and will most likely contribute towards ‘filling our virus reservoir’.

  6. @bernie Bell – yes others came in Via Zurich. The ‘strict” interpretation of the Westminster rule at the time was that no-one from a “Red List” country can come into the UK directly …..but they can come in from somewhere else, but they have to then isolate at their discretion . Now they would have to isolate in a hotel, I believe.

    Australia and New Zealand managed this entirely differently .

  7. Thank you for a good article which I agree with. And thanks to the replies too. A good shot of reassuring sanity.
    Clearly this self serving government is actually getting away with mass murder, first with austerity, which continues to cause misery and death to thousands and then the covid debacle. Smugly confident I’m sure, of being all powerful with no-one to stop them pleasing themselves, and no-one brave enough to hold them to proper account for a wide variety of dispicable behaviours.
    In regard to your follwing sentence…

    ‘But we must be honest, we bring this upon ourselves. Even when we know that the “facts” behind the Brexit story were lies we return the same party to office. Frankly we deserve no better’

    … I would say ‘they’ rather than ‘we’, because more people didn’t vote them into no 10 than did. They got in power because of the FPTP system. Unfortunately a large majority of those voters were manipulated by the lies just as you said, not helped by media that has also stopped holding it’self responsible for being trustworthy, becoming instead a ‘woke’ and cowardly pawn for the government.
    Ignorant, selfish, gullable people are getting more than they voted for perhaps, and deserve it, but the rest of the population have to suffer the results of their vote for a long time to come. People who see through all the hype and rubbish, and who have a sense of responsibility to themselves and others, deserve better, expect better and must carry on against all odds demanding better. It’s a disgraceful and extremely worrying fact, that there is no-one worthy of trust or respect in charge of our country and nobody can afford to be complacent about that.

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