Why does no-one ever take the blame any more?

Published in The Daily Mail (February 13th, 2013)

When Nick Clegg dropped into Hampshire to boost his party’s campaign in the crucial Eastleigh by-election, he spoke passionately about the virtues his party had brought to coalition government. He boasted of cutting council tax, of creating jobs and protecting green spaces.

It was all done in the earnest manner that became so familiar to voters during the last general election, when Clegg forced his way into government by promising a new style of ‘decent’ politics that would ‘persuade you to put your faith in politics once again’.

So it was natural for reporters to ask if he would apologise for the behaviour of his Liberal Democrat colleague which caused this costly by-election and corroded public trust in politicians even more.

After all, Chris Huhne’s original offence may have been comparatively minor, but his lengthy cover-up could scarcely have been more serious: a senior Cabinet minister deceiving the police, the courts, the media and the electorate.

Yet Clegg brushed aside any idea of apology, absurdly claiming that Huhne’s actions were a private matter. They may have been a private tragedy for his family, but here we had a man laying down laws for the country while lying to the criminal justice system and his  voters in Eastleigh.

Even if Clegg’s refusal to say sorry on behalf of his party was disappointing, sadly it did not come as a surprise.

Just look at the last Labour Government. Has there been genuine contrition shown for the disastrous Iraq war, or that dodgy ‘deal in the desert’ with the despotic Gaddafi, which saw Libya’s pariah status revoked in exchange for access to its massive oil reserves? Or for blowing mind-boggling sums of taxpayers’ money, often on vanity projects such as a useless NHS computer system that cost enough to fund 30,000 nurses for a decade?

Of course not. Instead, Tony Blair travels the world building a multi-million-pound fortune, while his former deputy John Prescott writes risible newspaper columns urging the coalition to do things he neglected to do while in office.

Meanwhile, ministers in the current government have shown alarming signs of continuing New Labour’s despicable habit of scapegoating officials when the going gets rough. Perhaps the worst example was the Home Secretary Theresa May publicly blaming Brodie Clark, head of the UK Border Force, for relaxing entry checks at airports to reduce queues. After suing for unfair dismissal, he was reported to have received a six-figure compensation package.

(Politicians, of course, are always prepared to apologise for the sins of their predecessors. Blair infamously took this to extremes, even saying sorry for the mid-19th-century Irish potato famine — leading Jeremy Paxman to accuse him of ‘moral vacuousness’.)

A lack of contrition and denial of personal responsibility also plagues the public sector, where it is eroding trust in state services in the same way it corroded faith in politics.

The most egregious example is that of Sir David Nicholson, who clings shamelessly to his job as chief executive of England’s National Health Service despite the damning report last week into hundreds of patient deaths at two mid-Staffordshire hospitals.

Nicholson was the bureaucrat running the health authority responsible for the deadly blunders, bullying and managerial mishaps. Incredibly, he eventually got the top job in the health service.

His refusal to budge is, frankly, sickening — an affront to both common decency and the families of all those people who died in the most disgusting and degrading circumstances in places that should have been their sanctuary.

Lest we forget, this is a man under whose watch patients were left lying in their stinking urine and excrement for days. Old people were abandoned, so thirsty they were forced to drink water from flower vases. Others were sent home despite life-threatening conditions.

Nicholson sought to head off the furore days before publication of the Francis Report last week by apologising ‘as a human being and as chief executive of the NHS’. But it defies belief he has not shown real remorse by resigning — or that his political  masters feel they can entrust the restoration of the NHS’s reputation to this man, especially now 14 more hospitals are being investigated for  suspiciously high death rates.

There had, after all, been a growing — yet ignored — clamour over inadequate care and compassion in the health service for years, with a string of concerned charities highlighting cases involving old, disabled and mentally ill patients.

Mind you, this was not even the most deadly recent NHS disaster. That unwanted title belongs to a case of nearly 5,000 haemophiliacs infected with HIV and hepatitis after the importation of contaminated blood products; more than 2,000 have since died, their numbers increasing each month.

Yet once again there have been no resignations, no sackings, no proper admissions of responsibility, no adequate apologies to assuage the pain of patients and their families.

We can see this same lack of contrition seeping across other public services. Look at the police, who seem to stumble from one crisis to another with scarcely a sign of remorse from the top brass. Only yesterday Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police chief, ruled out making ‘false’ apologies at this stage over the disturbing use of dead children’s identities for undercover officers.

Or look at the state broadcaster, where Lord Patten remains comfortably ensconced as chairman of the BBC Trust. Three months ago, a series of festering problems exploded in the most public manner after his appointment of George Entwistle as director-general. By all accounts a decent man, Entwistle was clearly not up to the job and quit in humiliating circumstances after 54 days.

Now, amid one of the worst crises in corporation history, beset by damaging allegations ranging from paedophile presenters to tax avoidance, the BBC remains rudderless as it awaits a new director-general.

Patten’s key task was to entrust the corporation into the hands of someone capable, yet he appointed the wrong man, then defied demands to quit. When pressed by MPs over his ‘cavalier’ use of the public money that gave Entwistle a generous pay-off of £450,000, he blamed seemingly everyone but himself.

Needless to say, a similar evasion of responsibility is evident among the titans of banking. Ceaselessly they demand vast bonuses, despite the deep financial pain they caused to the country by their incompetence.

Their sordid behaviour was on display again this week. Stephen Hester, chief executive of state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland, insisted he deserved a £780,000 bonus — even though his bank has just been fined £390 million for the Libor rate-fixing scandal.

To rub salt into any wounds felt by taxpayers struggling in the face of economic downturn, his chairman brazenly insisted Hester’s basic pay package of £1.6 million a year was ‘modest’. Even bereft of the bonus, it equals the salaries of 60 other Britons on average earnings.

Of course, no human being is infallible, and there will always be mistakes in public life, as in any other place. But like alcoholics who must confront their demons and accept their addiction to drink, officials must take sober responsibility for their actions if society is to regain a sense of public integrity.

Perhaps they are just reflecting the modern fashion for obsessive individualism and a lack of shame outweighing any sense of honour, decency or duty towards the wider community.

But is it any wonder there is such fast-diminishing faith in so many of our essential institutions, from banks to the health service, from politics to the police?

Instead there is one thing that seems to unite so many politicians and senior public servants: a shocking lack of contrition which displays only contempt for the general public — who invariably pay their salaries.

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