Greased Tortoises and Avoidance of Responsibility

He is not everyone’s cup of tea but I do enjoy reading Peter Hitchen’s columns in the Mail on Sunday. As he so rightly asked yesterday, is anyone still fooled by the figures for cases of the Coronabug? I quote,

The more you look, the more you will find, but deaths and hospitalisations keep going down. It is increasingly clear that the virus rarely affects healthy people. In fact, I’d guess that the chance of a healthy young person dying from Covid is about as great as the chance of an eagle dropping a tortoise on your head and killing you.

This actually happened to Greek playwright Aeschlyus about 2,500 years ago, so it must be about due to happen again, especially with the growing eagle population in the country, and the huge number of pet tortoises on which they might swoop if hungry. Be afraid.

Using the panic-stricken logic applied to Covid by Health Commissar Matt Hancock, we should surely be taking serious precautions against this menace. Perhaps the enforced wearing of tortoise-proof helmets might be necessary, or anti-eagle netting installed over the back gardens of tortoise-owners, who should from now on be strictly licensed.

But my favourite Hancock-style solution is the compulsory greasing of all tortoises, so that eagles cannot pick them up in the first place.

I think this meets the precautionary principle quite well, and I’m sure our domestic grease industry can cope with the demand. Save Lives. Control the Tortoise.’

I have to agree although it is unusual for Mr Hitchens to resort to levity. The current sense of fear that is promoted by government in all spheres of our daily lives surely cannot go on much longer. Risk is part of life I’m afraid and as far as I can see, the risk from this bug is minimal.

Talking about risk, last week I found myself on the cover of a brand new magazine and was duly flattered by the piece about me inside. SoulKind is a bi annual magazine – more like a coffee table book really – that explores why some people ignore risk and devote themselves to ventures that others regard as completely bonkers. For me, adventure of any sort has always been a way of challenging myself and perhaps getting my own back for my early years of being bullied at boarding school.

It is probably a great deal more complicated than that but I honestly believe that the current mass hysteria – again promoted by the government – is taking the soul out of Britain and will lead to the development of a pathetic nation of scared people.

And it all comes from the top. The character of any government is shaped by the personality of the person in charge – in this case Bunter Johnson. When he was the US president, Harry Truman apparently had a sign on his desk that read, ‘The Buck Stops Here.’ If Bunter J had such a sign, it would have to read, ‘Who Me?

Anyone familiar with his life knows that he does not feel constrained by conventional norms of behaviour and nor will he willingly shoulder responsibility for his bad choices. His career is potholed with scandals, outright lies and betrayals of trust. Having got to the pinnacle of the greasy pole despite all that, he would seem to have concluded that, providing your skin is thick enough and your reserves of shamelessness are deep enough, there is no scandal so enormous or blunder so obviously inept that it cannot be brazened out. And the same law of impunity that he wrote for himself is being applied to his cabinet of loyal mediocrities. Not only does former fire place salesman, Gavin Williamson continue to draw his cabinet salary, Robert Jenrick is still installed in a ministerial limousine, despite having unlawfully approved a £1bn property development.

Mr Johnson is encouraged in this by the pathetic team of ‘Yes men’ whom he imported into Number 10. Taking their lead from Svengali Cummings, they would appear to have an aggressive ‘never apologise, never concede’ attitude in which they can never be wrong. The defining non-resignation was that of Cummings himself after the exposure of his lockdown-busting excursions to and around Durham. His contrition-free account of his activities included that ludicrous ‘eye-test’ defence of his trip to Barnard Castle, the sheer inanity of this excuse demonstrating complete contempt for criticism. Mr Cummings refused to resign – and Mr Johnson to sack him – despite days of terrible headlines, serious damage to the government’s public health messaging, public anger and furious demands from many Tory MPs that he had to go. By successfully defying that level of pressure, the pair proved to themselves that no one can stop them tearing up the conventional rules about accountability.

Yet there will be consequences for the government’s doctrine of total power with absolutely no responsibility. When ministers start thinking that they will never be held accountable for their actions, they are that much more likely to make choices that are reckless, sleazy or stupid. We have a senior ministerial team that many senior Tory MPs regard as totally incompetent and at the same time this hapless cabinet is being encouraged to believe that no ministerial cock-up, however bad it may be, will be punished. That is a very dangerous way of running a country I am afraid. I witnessed the same thing in Zimbabwe and we know how that country has turned out.

After the purging of five of their most senior officials since April, civil servants must have realised that Number 10’s immediate response to anything that goes wrong is to blame officials. I am afraid they will respond accordingly. Instead of encouraging innovation, initiative and accountability within Whitehall, this will engender a culture of risk-avoidance and blame shifting in which officials make it their first priority to safeguard themselves against being cast as villains of the piece.  If ministers are no longer willing to defend their civil servants, officials will be less happy to defer to the tradition that they leave quietly when pushed out.

Parliament returns this week with a growing number of Conservative MPs anxious that a summer strewn with screeching U-turns and howling errors is giving their government a reputation for blithering ineptitude that is draining away public support.

The resignation of Ms Collier and the sacking of Mr Slater from the education establishment will not assuage voters, already angry about what has happened in schools for the simple reason that few parents will have heard of these officials. The latest opinion polls seem to indicate that voters hold Goofy Gavin primarily responsible for his department’s failings. It is his head that is demanded by the angry people who have been bombarding the inboxes of Tory MPs over the past month.

The shrewder people on the Conservative benches know that power without responsibility is a poisoned method of governing that will rebound on their party. A cabinet of blunderers is bad enough. A cabinet that refuses to take any responsibility for its mistakes invites an especially severe verdict from the public.

I really don’t know – nor I think does Bunter J – where we go from here.

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