Who’s to blame for the lack of accountability in Whitehall?

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A clip from Dominic Cummings’ appearance before the joint inquiry of the Health and Science Select Committees has become an iconic ‘meme’ moment. In trying to characterise the Government’s Covid-19 response, Cummings referenced a Spiderman meme, widely popular online: “you have, you know that Spiderman meme, both Spider-Mans pointing at each other? It’s like that but with everybody… all the different Spider-Mans are pointing at each other saying ‘you’re responsible’”.

Cummings’ critical remarks (and surprisingly apt pop-culture references) may at first seem like a revelation – exposing a dysfunctional, blame-filled culture at the highest level of government. In reality, whilst entertaining, Cummings’ explanation arguably reveals a lot less than one might first think. He refers to a problem we’ve known about for decades. At the heart of British government (often referred to as Whitehall, after the street on which many government departments are based) politicians, civil servants, and journalists partake in a ‘blame game’. 

The most recent match of finger-pointing is a perfect example of this game, as Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, and Ben Wallace, Defence Minister, both attempted to distance themselves from (and blame each other for) the chaotic evacuation of British assets from Afghanistan.

The somewhat vague overlap between departments seems to become weaponised as a tool to dodge responsibility

Raab and Wallace’s departments have naturally overlapping responsibilities as British foreign policy often relies on the capabilities of the armed forces. It is logical then, in cases where both departments have an interest, for both parties to work together to achieve their goals in an efficient manner. The issue arises when, as in Afghanistan, something goes wrong, at which point the somewhat vague overlap between departments (essential for efficient and integrated inter-departmental work) seems to become weaponised as a tool to dodge responsibility. In the case of Afghanistan, Raab and his Home Office, under intense media scrutiny, tried to shift blame onto Wallace’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), claiming they supplied faulty intelligence. The MOD swiftly replied, noting that their department had already analysed and acted on emails, in contrast to Raab’s thousands of unanswered messages.

This is a typical case of the blame game, as the overlaps between the responsibilities of key stakeholders of government are exploited to dodge blame. Whilst the issues, departments, and key players constantly change, the principles of Whitehall’s blame game have remained unchanged for decades. 

So, the question is: who is to blame for Whitehall’s blame game? 

Boris Johnson’s government seems a good place to start, given that this latest Afghanistan blame game unfolded under his leadership. Johnson himself has broken precedent with regards to the personal conduct of his ministers. The accusations levelled at Priti Patel about bullying, as well as Gavin Williamson’s exam fiasco and Raab’s Afghan blunder, did not result in any of them losing their jobs (until Williamson’s recent sacking), as might have been expected in line with political convention and ministerial code. Johnson too has, in the view of many, failed to reach high standards of personal conduct in office, with scandals around special treatment for James Dyson on tax, payments for flat refurbishment, and the infamous “let the bodies pile high” comment. 

Perhaps the coalition showed the value of the blame game when played well

On these grounds, it may be reasonable to argue that Johnson’s actions have perpetuated a culture in which his ministers feel emboldened to dodge blame in the wheeler-dealer style that is now considered by some to be synonymous with the Johnson government. However, whilst Johnson very arguably bears some responsibility for the proliferation of the blame game it would be unfair to lay all the responsibility (for an issue previously described in this article as ‘decades old’) at his feet.

Perhaps Cameron, Clegg, and the 2010 coalition Government are responsible for some of this mess? The first coalition government since the end of the Second World War created an uncertain power dynamic, where officials from multiple parties suddenly had mutual responsibility for government policy. This very arguably raised the stakes for blaming others; if executed well, blaming another minister might not even damage one’s own party. The prime example of this was the infamous university tuition fee hike, where the Tories forced through a near tripling of fees, in contradiction to the 2010 election promise of the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps the coalition showed the value of the blame game when played well. Perhaps previously unified ministries being controlled by different parties, with different agendas, cracked open the mutual bedrock of understanding shared between departments and opened up previously water-tight communication channels, and allowed a blame culture to grow inside Whitehall. Whatever the case, Cameron and Clegg, like Johnson, arguably cannot be wholly responsible for an issue which existed before their coalition. 

Looking back through the history of UK governments reveals that one could level accusations of blame game engineering on a great number of administrations and leaders. Tony Blair, as a further example, stands accused of breaking down the formality of government administration with his practice of ‘sofa government’, where many important conversations of policy were discussed by a tight group of advisors instead of his cabinet. Most famously, the decision to go to war in Iraq was made under this system, which the Iraq War (Chilcot) Inquiry said gave Blair “personal and political dominance” over his cabinet. Arguably, this blurred the lines of responsibility in government and made officials blaming one another far more likely. Again, however, it doesn’t explain the entire issue of the blame game which dates back further than Blair and appears to be more of a historically permanent fixture. 

Trying to pin this problem on one person appears overly simplistic. Perhaps there are causes more fundamental than which regime has power at any given moment? Analysing this issue from a broader perspective leads one to examine the conditions in which politicians operate; under the scrutiny of the media. Journalists are the medium through which the public consumes politics, so if leaders are escaping scrutiny then it is possible to argue that the media is failing in its primary function of holding those in power to account.

Trying to pin this problem on one person seems overly simplistic

When Raab points the finger at the MOD, it is important to understand that in a cost/benefit analysis it makes far more sense for him to take a slap on the wrist from the media compared to the potential risks of admitting guilt. The media will normally let the story pass, effectively unpunished, in a news cycle or two. Even if the media does focus on an issue, politicians like Raab often appear to escape serious punishment.

There is also an argument to make that journalists have fallen into the habit of sensationalising stories. When a story is labelled as ‘breaking news’, this of course allows the media company to increase its number of views and likes. However, if journalists are indeed sensationalising with this practice, the lines between news and information may be blurred, making it harder for the public to discern the most important stories that they ought to care about.

Can we blame journalists for this trend though? Media companies are generally for-profit organisations that need to make money to survive by increasing circulation and engagement for their ad-space. If people are not interested in engaging with political stories, then under the current business model it simply does not make sense for companies to print. There is an argument to say that this system pushes the media towards overlooking stories which would properly scrutinise politicians because they aren’t economically viable compared to popular tabloid-style pieces. But equally, the increasingly competitive media market very arguably pushes companies to exaggerate their stories in order to retain consumers and stay afloat.

So, if media companies are only following the demands of the public in the stories they supply, then maybe we are to blame? We, the people, vote governments into power, and it is under our electoral watch that they appear to dodge responsibility by partaking in the blame game. Equally we, as a nation, choose to engage with clickbait stories and sensationalised headlines. Arguably, if we cared more about hard-hitting political journalism it would be more profitable for media companies, and the media may better hold those partaking in the blame game to account.

The blame game, then, is arguably an essential part of the political system

However, simply picking the lowest common denominator (the public) to blame appears too convenient. Why should people be at fault for caring about what they do? If people are more interested in the romantic pursuits of celebrities than politics, who are we to tell them they are wrong? If the public would (arguably very understandably) rather fill their free time with entertaining stories over serious political ones, surely we cannot reason ourselves to blaming them for complex political issues.

But where does this leave us in answering our question? Throughout this article, and almost all others on the topic of the blame culture in politics, the issue is presented as a total disaster. But what if this is not so? It makes sense that our leaders fumbling with the big issues and pointing the finger of blame seems like a big dea l- but what if this is not the case? 

Take the evacuation of British assets from Afghanistan for example. How many people are still discussing this? The events may have taken place only very recently but the uncomfortable truth is that most people have seemingly already stopped discussing them. If we (the public) only care about such events for a short period of time, then they would arguably be poor grounds for radical change to our political system. However, perhaps if we didn’t have the blame game, that sort of change would happen far more than people actually wanted. For example, when the nation’s attention was captivated by Afghanistan, many wanted Raab, and maybe even Johnson, to be fired.

The blame game, then, is arguably an essential part of the political system; an emergency vent through which pressure can be released on the government, without the entire political system collapsing under the pressure. Without it, perhaps we would have a revolving door of MPs, ministers, and advisors who (under a level of job scrutiny unmatched in any other profession) would be fired almost weekly for potentially any mistake; an outcome that would surely be unworkable. The blame game arguably ensures that politicians are allowed to make mistakes, and that the public is allowed to express their momentary outrage without taking a sledgehammer to politics every time someone slips up.

Image: VirtuallyLondonBecky via Wikimedia Commons

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