Our privileged rulers who never say “Sorry” Yorkshire Post 20 Nov 2008
Published in Yorkshire Post 20 November 2008
In the last decade two great disasters have befallen the British people, theIraq war and the financial meltdown. The war was unnecessary and unlawful and has brought them only debt, danger, dishonour and death. The meltdown has already cost them hundreds of billions of pounds in taxation and savings, destroyed jobs and businesses and ravaged pensions – and worse is to come. Economic destruction will bring in its train acute social problems: home repossessions, broken families, shattered communities, more illness, more crime and disorder.
The two disasters were not British-made but they still represent massive failures by our ruling class. With better decisions we might have prevented the Iraq war and we could certainly have stayed out of it. With simple foresight our financial system and our entire economy might have been better prepared for global turmoil and would not have added domestic problems to those imported from overseas. Instead, for ten years, our biggest growth industry was complacency.
The poor decisions were not only the fault of ministers. Civil servants, the intelligence and security services, military chiefs and senior lawyers all had a role in theIraqdisaster: regulators, financial and business leaders all contributed, with government, to economic failure. And none of these people have said sorry. No one has owned up to any errors, omissions or weakness.
This never-apologize mentality did not begin with New Labour (the Major government never said sorry for the ERM debacle) but it has got worse. New Labour is the most self-righteous government in modern times, with two Premiers in succession who like to parade their virtue, and a crop of ministers who love to tell the British people how to behave. Such a government naturally finds it difficult to admit its own shortcomings. The return of Peter Mandelson will not encourage a greater acceptance of responsibility in government.
Apart from the government, the never-say-sorry mentality is now pervasive in public services and big business and every organization and institution which holds power over the British people. They have reversed Harry Truman’s great motto: for those in authority now “the buck starts here.” Whether the criminal justice system wrongly imprisons a man for years of his life, or billions are wasted on failed IT systems, or hospitals infect their patients with new diseases, or soldiers miss out on vital equipment, or the Metropolitan Police shoot an innocent Brazilian – no one gives an apology except under compulsion.
The collapse of responsibility in our ruling class is as big a threat to our country as the collapse of its banking system. It entrenches injustice and misgovernment. It ensures that people who complain against authority have the deck stacked against them. They have to jump through as many procedural hoops than Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, or submit to the hazards and expense of the law, or seek out the help of a campaigning newspaper or MP or pressure group.
Businesses and organizations often cite the “compensation culture” as a reason for their attitude. They do not admit responsibility for fear of being sued. But more often than not, complainants are not interested in compensation: they simply want someone in authority to acknowledge that authority has caused them loss or suffering.
Accepting responsibility for error is the first necessary step to correcting it and ensuring that it is not repeated. One of the present mantras of our ruling class is “lessons have been learned.” The government is particularly fond of this phrase and uses it regularly aboutIraqand the banking crash. But how can our rulers expect us to believe that “lessons have been learned” if none of them ever admit that they made a mistake? And when we see the same people, or the same kinds of people, running things year after year, promoted and rewarded no matter what breakdowns or disasters occur on their watch, why should anyone expect things to get better?
Acceptance of responsibility is the moral glue which holds any organization together. Without it, an organization quickly dissolves into selfishness, rancour and failure. A football team is defeated: the goalkeeper flaps at a cross, the centre forward blazes over the bar, the manager makes the wrong substitution. If these people admit their errors the team may recover. But when the goalkeeper blames the sun in his eyes, the centre forward blames a bump in the pitch and the manager blames the referee – the team is heading for relegation.
Such an attitude can ruin whole nations. At a time of crisis, when the British people desperately need to believe in their rulers, it generates a climate of apathy, mistrust and cynicism. Recovery from the crisis will require millions of people to make painful adjustments and sacrifices to their lives. Who, among our recent rulers, has earned any right to ask the rest of us for sacrifice? They live in a privileged world, where self-love means never having to say that you’re sorry.