Ceaseless scandals show profound arrogance at heart of British establishment

It has a misplaced superiority that feeds on itself

Two scandals that rocked Britain – decades apart – are part of a cycle of failure by government. AP
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There is an episode that sticks in the mind. It was 1996 and publication of the Scott Report into the export of arms to Iraq, contrary to declared UK government policy.

For four years, Sir Richard Scott, a Lord Justice of Appeal, had presided over a judicial inquiry into the secret weapons sales. Finally, we – the media, Parliament, public – were going to receive his findings. On the press side, we were promised the report would break new ground regarding open government – the evidence submitted to the inquiry would be published via what was then a new, exciting format, as a CD-Rom.

At my newspaper at the time, we excitedly sent a dispatch rider to Whitehall to pick up the disks. When he came back, we inserted them in the computer. And there was … mostly nothing. Where much of the material should have been there were screeds of what appeared to be black marker pen. It had been redacted.

Ah, but it was published. You could imagine Sir Humphrey from Yes Minister dreaming up the wheeze in response to pressure for greater transparency – and smiling in that knowing, familiar manner.

The Economist commented that Sir Richard "exposed an excessively secretive government machine, riddled with incompetence, slippery with the truth and willing to mislead Parliament".

In his report, he characterised the nature of British government thus:

"The main objectives of governments are the implementation of their policies and the discomfiture of opposition; they do not submit with enthusiasm to the restraints of accountability … governments are little disposed to volunteer information that may expose them to criticism … The enforcement of accountability depends largely on the ability of Parliament to prise information from governments which are inclined to be defensively secretive where they are most vulnerable to challenge."

Two shocking episodes

That was 28 years ago. Since then, we’ve suffered numerous scandals, all of which have continued to follow the same pattern. There’s the incident, outrage, appointment of a senior judge to preside over an inquiry, a drawn-out interrogation, publication of their report with a series of recommendations, acceptance by the government of the day of their findings and expressions of contrition all round.

The report is shelved, little happens, we lurch on to the next disgraceful incident and the whole palaver is repeated.

Nothing changes. No heads roll. Those who were responsible for this latest stain on the national psyche have long since left the stage. No prosecutions are brought. Monetary compensation is offered – and often, that only creates a separate row as to whether it’s enough and how it should be awarded.

Currently, even by the lamentable standards of UK government, the country has been rocked by two, simply shocking episodes. They’re different from each other and can lay claim, in their own way, to be the worst ever.

One is the Post Office sub-postmasters’ scandal, when thousands of workers were accused of fraud and many were prosecuted, resulting in convictions, personal ruination and in some cases, suicide. When, all along it was not theft that was to blame but faulty IT. The real cause was pointed out but officials chose to ignore it, pursuing innocents regardless. Only after decades of dogged campaigning was the truth confirmed.

If that was not bad enough, we’ve now had the tainted blood scandal. In delivering his report this week, the inquiry chairman, Sir Brian Langstaff, was withering in his contempt of officialdom and its arrogance, despite being confronted by the unfolding, seemingly impossible to avoid, horror of more than 3,000 deaths from receiving infected blood. Sir Brian spoke of a "pervasive and chilling" cover-up in the NHS and government.

The victims were betrayed by a collective "lack of openness, transparency and candour", accompanied by "elements of downright deception" that included the shredding of documents.

Sir Brian blamed an "instinctive defensiveness" of successive governments. "To save face and to save expense, there has been a hiding of much of the truth."

In the Commons, Rishi Sunak gave a "whole-hearted, unconditional apology" on behalf of the state. It was a scandal that "should shake our nation to the core".

It does, Rishi, but the question remains, does it shake government – Whitehall and its political bosses – to the core? Theresa May, who ordered the contaminated blood inquiry when she was prime minister in 2017, put it well: "Sir Brian has highlighted what is a devastating and abject failure of the British state.

"Medical professionals, civil servants, politicians – all of whom felt their job was to protect their own reputation rather than to serve and look after the public who they were there to serve."

Sunak pledged the Conservatives will "work urgently across government and public organisations" to ensure "nothing like this can ever happen again".

Misplaced superiority

The problem goes deep. It entails the tackling of an institutional mindset, evident in the Post Office scandal and countless previous others, and now this.

For what Sir Richard Scott said in 1996, read Sir Brian Langstaff today. For the same people who thought it clever to issue a CD-Rom containing barely anything, witness those who lied and fudged to the poisoned blood and Post Office inquiries.

That’s what must disappear. We can laugh at Sir Humphrey (still clearly just as pertinent) but it isn’t funny.

There is a profound arrogance at the heart of the British establishment, one that shows itself in a disconnect between state and people, between those at the top, and they include senior civil servants, who hail from a background of privilege, and the little person. The former is always right and the other knows nothing and must be wrong.

It’s a misplaced superiority that feeds on itself, so that even if those complaining hold similar qualifications, they are dismissed.

Stop talking and start doing

Once the threshold of government is crossed, as soon as the Official Secrets Act is signed, an omerta takes hold. It’s the same grip that is exerted on the first day at an elite public school or in the welcome at a top university or dinners at the Inns of Court or the Members’ Tea Room in the House of Commons.

What is striking about the Post Office and blood tragedies is that those who perpetrated the cover-up, who stuck to the rigid denial, were not stupid people. They’d allowed themselves to be consumed by endemic disregard, such that the failure to appreciate and to listen was embedded in the DNA of the organisation than with them individually.

It’s this, that if he is true to his word, Sunak, and presumably his successor, must attempt to shift. It requires wholesale demolition and rebuilding, with new recruitment policies, encouragement of whistle-blowers and injection of that vital ingredient, respect. Inclusivity not exclusivity must become the watchword.

Such is the scale of the task that it’s a tall order. Certainly, we’ve come nowhere since Sir Richard Scott fired his own diatribe decades ago.

There must, surely, be a moment when we stop talking and start doing. Banish Sir Humphrey, put an end to the ifs and buts. This should be it.

Published: May 22, 2024, 5:30 AM