Britain’s elites need to own up to their failures
Responsibility dodging is now endemic among our leaders.
Public-sector leaders today constantly refuse to take responsibility, either for their own failures or for failures that occur on their watch.
Sir Philip Barton is still permanent-under secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, despite staying on holiday for 11 days during Britain’s botched evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021. More recently, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Simon Byrne, took four weeks to step down, after a data leak put the lives of hundreds of policemen working with MI5 at risk. And managers at the Countess of Chester hospital, who were in place during neonatal nurse Lucy Letby’s killing spree, have refused to take any responsibility at all.
As Daily Telegraph columnist Philip Johnston has it, in the UK public sector, ‘the so-called “honourable resignation” is pretty much a thing of the past’. And politicians themselves are no better. Take former foreign secretary Dominic Raab. Like Barton, he too stayed on holiday during the fall of Kabul. And like Barton, he shrugged off responsibility for the deeply flawed evacuation, which left many Afghans who had helped British forces at the mercy of the Taliban.
This refusal to take responsibility is a society-wide problem. But the example is being set at the very top, by senior civil servants, NHS dignitaries and politicians. Over and again, they fail to respond to their own failures by doing the decent thing and falling on their swords.
Leaders in the private sector are often no better at taking responsibility for their failings. Take the Post Office scandal. Fujitsu supplied Post Office branches with defective accounting software which led to over 700 branch managers being wrongly convicted of false accounting and theft between 2000 and 2014. It has been described as ‘one of the largest miscarriages of justice in British history’. Yet not a single senior figure at Fujitsu has felt the need to step down.
Or look at the Grenfell disaster. The three firms – Kingspan, Arconic and Saint Gobain subsidiary Celotex – responsible for installing the combustible cladding system, which was the primary cause of the fire’s spread, may have come to a financial settlement with 900 residents. But aside from the resignation of one Kingspan director in 2020, no one at these companies has felt the need to step down or issue a public mea culpa.
The refusal of our elites to take responsibility is not just down to their desire to manage their reputations and maintain their high incomes. It also speaks to the broader cultural devaluation of public duty and the decay of any sense of serving the greater good.
It remains easy to be po-faced about the idea of responsibility. But Britain urgently needs a whole lot more of it. In the public sector, responsibility means doing right by the people who pay taxes to support you, or who voted for you. In the private sector, it’s more complicated, but CEOs and other execs could start by prioritising professionalism over woke posturing and impression management. After all, they have a responsibility to do their jobs well.
The struggle to rehabilitate responsibility will be long and hard. But the sooner our elites recognise they have a responsibility to people other than themselves, the better.
James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.
Picture by: Getty.