Responsibility Claims

Steven Methven

‘I take full responsibility for everything that has happened,’ Boris Johnson told the House of Commons at the end of May, in answer to a question from the SNP leader Ian Blackford. He qualified himself in answer to Blackford’s next question: ‘I take full responsibility for everything that the government did.’ It’s a line he’s been peddling for a while. ‘As prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,’ he said at a press conference in January, on the day the official tally of Covid-19 fatalities in the United Kingdom passed 100,000.

Since the pandemic began, there has been plenty of talk from the government about responsibility, though usually ours not theirs. As we have tried to navigate more than a year’s worth of confusing advice, we have been instructed, over and over, to exercise responsibility, along with common sense and restraint. Whether we were being rewarded with restaurant discount vouchers or chastised for sitting in a park, the message was the same: each of us has a responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus. But no minister has seemed able to add the words: ‘to one another’.

The elision reflects an ideology according to which the only responsibility we really have is personal – to ourselves and our dependents. But the co-operation required to control the spread of a pandemic disease (for example) won’t emerge from the sum of individuals thinking only of themselves and their families.

The government has been unable to say that we all have a responsibility to one another not to spread the virus. This idea of responsibility is not about the atomised individual and their personal conscience, weighing up the consequences of irresponsibility in terms of private risk against private gain. Rather, it is a relation that recognises each of us as one among manifold others, to each of whom something is owed. In every case, the barest thing: not to make them ill, and not to make them responsible to another for making them ill.

Of course, we know this. We haven’t stayed indoors only because we’ve feared for ourselves and our families. We’ve done it because we care enough about one another, and enough about ourselves, to avoid being responsible for a harm to anyone else. Yes, most of us have slipped, but the thought of what that slip might mean for those around us has kept most of us more or less responsible to one another.

Even in ordinary times, responsibility to one another is often bigger and more wearisome than our pressed lives can bear. We can forget that there are others beyond those closest to us. That is a wholly forgivable feature of human nature, exacerbated by the economic and social conditions we think of as normal, and susceptible to acceleration as those pressures increase. But only so far. The domain of the Conservative idea of responsibility, however, stretches no further than the length of your arm. That idea’s central contradiction has now been exposed by a pandemic that extends far beyond that short reach.

Government messaging about ‘responsibility’ performs two functions. First, it turns our gaze away from the government’s responsibilities by creating the illusion that there are large numbers of people who behave irresponsibly, whose fault it was that the virus was inadequately controlled. And second, it gives the appearance of the government doing something about it (just as Johnson evades accountability by appearing to accept it). But most of us require no reminders of what we owe to one another. The government is all too keen to claim full responsibility for the success of the vaccine rollout, downplaying not only the achievement of the NHS and its workers but also the part played by the general public, evincing an inherent willingness to do what we must to protect one another.

What we do require, however, and has only ever been in the government’s power to grant, is the capacity to make the choices that would enable us to observe the responsibility to one another that we already know. In the case of the pandemic, that would have meant the timely closure of schools, universities and workplaces; clear rules on mask use; financial support for workers and businesses; money for cash-strapped families and individuals; support to allow people to self-isolate properly; a functioning test and trace system; the prosecution of employers who forced their employees to the workplace; timely restrictions on international travel; the list goes on. Time and again, in spite of scientific advice, the government has failed to act or acted too late, blinded by the ideology of personal responsibility.

Boris Johnson isn’t responsible for all of the 128,000 deaths from Covid, or for those left with chronic illness, but he is responsible for many of them (and may be responsible for more to come, as case numbers and hospital admissions are rising again and we wait to hear about the possible lifting of restrictions on 21 June). This is a truth he can’t state, and a burden he can’t bear. That he goes on as prime minister says something about him. He may be unable to hold himself accountable, but when the time comes, the rest of us will have to. If we don’t, that will say something about us.


  • 10 June 2021 at 1:32pm
    Joe Morison says:
    The Conservative Party of the 1960s believed that we have a responsibility to one another and that responsibility is met by our looking out for each other. By the time of Thatcher’s dominance, they still believed that we have a responsibility to each other but that the responsibility is best met by everyone looking out for themselves. Under Johnson, to the increasing extent that the party is a reflection of him, it is has ditched even pretending to itself that it cares about anything other its grip on power.

    Andrew Mitchell (a Tory MP right wing enough to have voted for both the death penalty and Section 28) says the reduction in the British foreign aid budget will cause over a 100,000 deaths; Johnson dismisses such complaints as ‘lefty propaganda’ (it’s worth remembering that the money saved from the cut in foreign aid is less than 12% of the money spaffed up the wall by Johnson’s mate Dido Harding’s risible test and trace scheme).

    It seems obvious from both his personal and political life that Johnson gives a damn for nothing but himself, that poison is working deep into the Tory Party and is starting to make itself felt in the country. He is a cancer at the heart of the nation.

  • 11 June 2021 at 3:23am
    Graucho says:
    He is responsible for being the most irresponsible PM in living memory.

    • 11 June 2021 at 12:00pm
      XopherO says: @ Graucho
      Nobody with any knowledge of Johnson's life history could doubt that he would be a disastrous choice for any government position right up to his time in the FCO. I read Heathcote Williams' 'The Beast of Brexit' which catalogues his depravity in some detail. His mendacity, infidelity, corruption and narcissism etc were known to many Party members who voted him in as leader, including the vast majority of Tory MPs who have done nothing to mitigate the consequences. So just blaming Johnson, and even his ministers (distinguished by their imitation), for what has happened seems somehow to miss the target. Meanwhile Labour has spent some years poking around in its navel, Starmer going even deeper.

  • 13 June 2021 at 8:24pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Of course mistakes have been made but 20-20 hindsight is usually unforgiving.
    I do favour personal responsibility but we have been given little opportunity to exercise that. Is it possible that our masters don’t trust us?
    One thing that has emerged is that, by and large, if you’re under 45 you are at a low risk of dying from this thing; even fit people under 60 have greater threats to life.
    So, given that hindsight, wouldn’t it have been better to shield the vulnerable (over 60, cardiac or respiratory morbidities) and let the rest of the population out?
    However your last paragraph is pertinent: when the time comes I think the country WILL vote Boris back in and, yes, that says an awful lot about the UK.
    I’m optimistic

    • 13 June 2021 at 9:02pm
      XopherO says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      You miss the essence of the whole problem - the NHS, underfunded, understaffed, under-equipped for years in comparison to our continental neighbours, has failed, as might have been expected. A much higher death rate, over four million cancelled 'non-urgent' interventions tells it all. 'Non-urgent' becomes 'urgent' becomes 'mortal'. What you suggest would have led to a complete breakdown, even of treatment of Covid cases. Every hospital turned into a massive mortuary, GPs overwhelmed with long Covid cases (they probably are anyway). I am not inclined to ad hominem arguments but Mr Jinks you really test me! My wife, who is French, told me today she is so glad she is not in England with the current France-bashing francophobia, and deliberate misinterpretation of Macron's observations - I don't like him much, but he is the current spokesperson for the EU. The UK, sorry England, has to face up to that.

    • 13 June 2021 at 10:13pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ XopherO
      You make good points about our under-funded NHS: it is not that Covid caused so many deaths but that the strain it put on the NHS caused deaths from other morbidities. Indisputable. But I still believe that a targetted approach to lockdown would have been more effective, at least economically (I know, I know: it’s not ALWAYS the economy, stupid).
      As to France-bashing francophobia I find that a little rich when M Macron’s whole attitude (driven, I am aware, by his fear of being ousted by Frexit Le Pen) has been unreservedly anglophobic.

    • 14 June 2021 at 9:48am
      XopherO says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      I really don't hear or read much, if anything, that is anglophobic over here. There is perplexity about Brexit, as much as to why the UK (England) would choose to shoot itself in both feet. Without doubt the Brits have been the most abusive about the EU and its negotiators and France in particular, which hardly helps negotiations, indeed the contrary. The Press and negotiators seem not to understand that there are 27 heads of government involved,and from what I have heard about Barnier's diaries, the Brits have been untrustworthy, unreliable and worse. It was clear, and Barnier has said it, that the UK was fielding amateur, undiplomatic negotiators against real pros with a very experienced diplomatic approach - it verged on the farcical to watch and listen to the England 'team'. The EU position has always been that the UK cannot have the same privileges outside. Obvious, except it seems to Johnson and Co, and the EU has chosen Macron as the visible 'enforcer' of this, but they all agree. Macron cannot go it alone. The British press likes the Le Pen argument, but she cannot get 50% in the first round, so it will probably be a repeat of 2002. So Macron's concern is to be in the second round, for which he needs to ensure that right wing Les Republicains, not Le Pen, don't steal his votes, so he has steered LREM into LR territory. Extraordinary for a man who was in Hollande's government.

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