Personal Responsibility: Why It Matters 
by Alexander Brown.
Continuum, 214 pp., £12.99, September 2009, 978 1 84706 399 1
Show More
Show More

Ever since the rise of Margaret Thatcher, personal responsibility has been the irresistible itch that the Conservative Party dare not scratch – at least not in public. Notwithstanding the party’s boosterish slogans of enterprise, freedom and low taxation, many of its elderly members – and some of its politicians – have long held to a more cautious ethos of middle-class respectability, restraint and downright frugality. In theory, these Conservatives wished to roll back the restrictions of the socialist state; in practice, many of them reckoned that wartime rationing had been good for the moral fibre of the nation, and took the view that the softness of modern consumerist lifestyles had raised a society of degenerates. It was but a small step from inside lavatories and quilted toilet paper to long-haired decadence, dysfunctional families and drug addiction.

However, as Thatcher learned in the months before she became leader of the party, it was a mistake to broach too obviously the ethics of personal responsibility. Had not her ally and mentor Keith Joseph seen his own leadership aspirations shrivel in the aftermath of his notorious Edgbaston speech? When Joseph addressed the Edgbaston Conservative Association at Birmingham’s Grand Hotel on 19 October 1974, the Conservatives, under Ted Heath, had just lost a general election and Joseph had emerged as the likeliest alternative leader. However, in a speech which deliberately departed from economic issues to denounce the permissive society, Joseph undermined his political credentials. He warned that Britain’s ‘human stock’ was ‘threatened’ because a high and rising proportion of children were being born to adolescent mothers ‘in social classes four and five’, some of whom were ‘of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment’. Joseph believed that these mothers were ‘producing’ the ‘delinquents’ of the future, ‘denizens of our borstals, sub-normal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters’. To prescribe birth control for these girls was perhaps ‘immoral’, but surely, Joseph calculated, it was the lesser of two evils. Although Joseph’s message resonated with the Conservative base and beyond, his invocation of eugenics undermined his reputation with the broadsheet press. The influential journalist Alan Watkins described him as ‘a saloon-bar Malthus’.

Thatcher, not Joseph, won the Tory leadership contest in spring 1975, and she never forgot the need to approach divisive moral questions with delicacy, circumspection and a degree of euphemism: subtleties which contradicted her own instincts and her reputation (not entirely deserved) for outspokenness. However, her successor, John Major, succumbed to the temptations of saloon-bar moralism when he launched his Back to Basics campaign at the 1993 Tory Party Conference. Major remains insistent that Back to Basics did not amount to a moral crusade. It was Peter Lilley and John Redwood, his hard-right opponents in the Conservative Party, who revisited the issues of single mothers and sexual continence. Nevertheless, Major admits in his autobiography that Back to Basics was devised as a challenge to entrenched policies in a number of areas – crime, health, education and social work – where ‘professional wisdom had become divorced from public sentiment and from reality.’ Rather than rely on the non-judgmental expertise of welfare state apparatchiks, people should, the Tories believed, be reminded of the importance of ‘personal responsibility’. Regardless of Major’s precise target, Back to Basics was widely and deliberately misinterpreted by the media as a call for sexual purity, which provided a convenient excuse for a series of prurient stories about the extramarital affairs, flings and perversions of various Tory politicians. Back to Basics turned out to be the unwitting midwife of ‘sleaze’.

Sleaze, along with the United Kingdom’s humiliating withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, brought the Tories a devastating political defeat in the election of 1997, and more than a decade out of office. Things only began to change when a sequence of uncharismatic right-wing leaders came to an end with the accession to the party leadership of David Cameron, a smoother, less straightforward kind of Conservative. Cameron recognised that if he was to ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand, loosen its association with uncaring Thatcherite economics, then he needed to explode the assumption that the Conservatives value freedom above all else. Instead, he began to articulate a social conservatism which balanced compassion for the underprivileged with a call for ‘personal responsibility’. ‘We talk about people being “at risk of obesity” instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise,’ Cameron complains. ‘We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things – obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction – are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.’ Judgmental language is back; but, whereas Joseph saw personal responsibility as a complement to free market economics within a tradition of ordered liberty, Cameron is using moral language, it seems, as a tactical alternative to bald laissez-faire economics. Other parties have, of course, explored this terrain. New Labour borrowed the idea of ‘workfare’ from the United States for its own New Deal, and the minority SNP executive has tried to address Scotland’s serious drink problem. Yet the subject possesses the greatest allure for social conservatives.

However, as the philosopher Alexander Brown shows in Personal Responsibility, the subject is more slippery than politicians imagine. How should society determine whether someone’s circumstances mean that they are deserving of its support rather than its condemnation? The philosophical literature, as Brown shows, generates a ‘bewildering array of criteria’ for making such a basic judgment. Fairness stands at some remove from social utility, and more remote still are concerns about the self-respect of the individual. These incommensurables complicate the discussion of responsibility, though not, of course, among practising politicians. Furthermore, Brown notes that philosophers distinguish carefully between ‘brute luck’ (over which nobody has any control) and the misfortunes (so-called) which arise, at least in part, through risk-taking or poor decision-making. However, in practice it is not always easy to draw this particular line. Free will – to the non-philosopher the conceptual bedrock of any policy to promote personal responsibility – turns out to be a marshy notion. Although, as it happens, some philosophers have found a way of establishing moral responsibility independent of the notion of free will, is that the sort of argument a politician could make to the electorate with conviction or clarity?

The politics of judgmentalism also call into question the supposed neutrality of the liberal state. Should the state hold people responsible for ‘good’ or ‘bad’ lives? How should governments interfere when conceptions of the ‘good’ touch on ‘controversial assumptions about human nature’, some of which might be drawn from particular religious doctrines? Brown concludes that it’s not ‘incumbent upon the state to refrain entirely from espousing views about the good life’, but that the alternatives need to be clearly presented to the electorate. Citizens’ juries, he suggests, might be helpful in this respect. It’s troubling that the supposed ‘good life’ turns out to be a mirage: if you were to try to calculate the costs of ‘bad’ living, Brown contends, you would discover that the statistics don’t help the case for linking taxation to lifestyle. For instance, if you smoke cigarettes or live on burgers and chips, should you contribute more to the NHS? It turns out that smokers and users of fast-food outlets tend to cost less over their lifetimes than health puritans. Longevity is the main factor contributing to lifetime health costs; those with healthy lifestyles generally outlive the obese; and the obese in their turn outlive the smokers. Cameron has posed the question whether we have a responsibility to be healthy. But if his main concern is fiscal, do we then owe it to society to pass on the greens and tuck in to the chips?

Welfare reform raises thorny issues of its own. Is dependency on the state bad for taxpayers or bad for the recipients of welfare? Cameron risks reviving the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, which was hard enough to take when uttered by Conservatives who had risen from the lower middle class, like Thatcher herself or Norman Tebbit, but is impossible to swallow from Cameron and other graduates of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, who carry out acts of vandalism dressed in bow tie and tails.

Exposure to the real lives of typical Britons would probably blur the concept of responsibility. No other Tory has more hands-on experience of what it’s like to live on the dole in the wake of a recession than Mathew Parris, now a broadcaster and commentator on the soft right. In 1984, Parris, then a Conservative MP, accepted the challenge of ITV’s World in Action that he try to live for a week on the equivalent of dole money. His experiences in the Scotswood district of Newcastle, an unemployment black spot, led him to see something cruelly mistaken in Tebbit’s jibes that the long-term unemployed were somehow deficient in personal responsibility. Whereas Tebbit thought the unemployed should ‘get on their bikes’ to look for work, or, if none was to be found, should thole their fate with stoicism, Parris celebrated the vigour of the black economy. However deplorable, the ingenuity of welfare cheats was preferable to passivity in the face of misfortune. Ultimately, what society needed, Parris believed, was not responsibility, but enterprise – of any sort.

Nor should social conservatives forget the raw power of peer pressure to overwhelm the still, small voice of conscience. Whether in the Bullingdon Club or in a gang of hoodies, it is hard to make the case for personal responsibility over the din of tribal bonding. To take a principled stand, to withdraw from the low-level quasi-criminality of group rituals and high jinks might be to court accusations of priggishness. We have seen how hard it is for MPs, bankers and other supposedly autonomous professionals to invoke conscience and principle in their working lives when faced with destructive herd instincts.

Politicians may be confused about what they mean by the personal responsibility the state expects from the population at large, but we the people are in a similar fog about the responsibility we might expect of our elected representatives. Responsibility has a distinctive, if somewhat imprecise, set of meanings in British political life, and is not as simple as the media reporting of the scandal of MPs’ expenses would suggest. At the heart of British constitutional theory is the notion of ministerial responsibility: the political heads of government departments, not civil servants, answer to Parliament for the deeds and misdeeds of the state. Responsibility is a compound term within which might be detected shades of answerability, accountability and culpability. In practice, ministers rarely take the blame for the mistakes of civil servants. Ministerial resignations for failures of departmental policy, such as Sir Thomas Dugdale’s in 1954 over the Crichel Down affair or Lord Carrington’s in 1982 after the invasion of the Falkland Islands, don’t happen very often. More recently, Michael Howard’s reluctance as home secretary to accept blame for the failures of the prison service introduced some new distinctions into the concept of ministerial responsibility. In 1995 Howard sacked Derek Lewis, the director-general of the prison service, on the grounds that, while Howard as a government minister was accountable to Parliament – in the sense merely that he provided an account of events, such as prison break-outs – and had overall responsibility for policy, Lewis had responsibility for operational matters. In general, when ministers have resigned from office, it has not been because of gross failures of policy, but constitutionally irrelevant lapses in their personal lives.

We are used to thinking of responsibility as something that applies to ministers, not to MPs. Indeed, it is MPs to whom ministers are accountable within the system of parliamentary sovereignty. Furthermore, MPs can’t technically resign their seats: they can leave Parliament in mid-session only through appointment to a government sinecure. Holding an office such as the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds automatically disqualifies an MP from the Commons. This rigmarole raises questions about what we might mean constitutionally by the responsibility of our MPs. Furthermore, while MPs can be voted out by their constituents at general elections, they are not the delegates of their constituencies, but their representatives, and as such are expected to exercise independent (or, in practice, party-whipped) judgment in the interest of the nation as a whole.

Parliamentary self-governance – the necessary corollary of parliamentary sovereignty – has been under threat for some time. In 1974-75, the Register of Members’ Interests was introduced following revelations that the architect and property developer John Poulson had bribed several councillors in the north of England, and compromised, at the very least, the integrity of a recent home secretary, Reginald Maudling. The register was a form of self-policing readily compatible with a sovereign Parliament, or so it seemed. Nevertheless, Enoch Powell, a stickler for parliamentary procedure, refused to comply with the register unless legally compelled to do so by an Act of Parliament. Not that he had anything to hide. He objected to the lax indulgence of MPs’ expenses claims, and refused to take any mid-term increases in parliamentary stipend until they had been ratified by the electors at a subsequent general election. Powell serves as a vivid, if extreme, warning about the kind of politician we might get if terms and conditions become too severe. I’m much less bothered about MPs with tastes for clean moats and bespoke duckhouses than I am about grim fanatics.

The register seemed to work well enough until the ‘cash for questions’ affair in 1994, when the story broke that, in return for payment, certain MPs were prepared to ask questions in the House of Commons on behalf of commercial interests. The growth in lobbying that had accompanied the long period of uninterrupted Tory government since 1979 had clearly distorted the ethical compass of – at the very least – several politicians. John Major commissioned a law lord, Lord Nolan, to look at standards in public life. Although the Nolan Committee found no evidence of any growth in corruption in the British political system, it identified seven principles of public life that politicians were expected to uphold: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. This list sounds very wholesome, and is surely something to which no one could object. But there is a problem with it: it’s the product of a benchmarking exercise, whereby the great and the good presume to determine what kinds of politician we should have. Isn’t that the prerogative of the people, speaking through the ballot box? It’s up to us – assisted by the major political parties, which already filter out supposedly unsuitable candidates – whether we think our constituency is best represented by a dull conformist of the utmost rectitude or a charismatic, media-friendly rogue.

The latest scandal surrounding MPs’ allowances has led to further usurpations of the British constitution. Our representatives now seem to have been downgraded to a special class of civil servant. The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Christopher Kelly, has recommended that no MP whose seat is within an hour’s train journey of London should be entitled to claim for a second home; that MPs will no longer be allowed to employ family members as secretaries and researchers; and that there will be reduced compensation for MPs who lose their seats at a general election. Although there is, obviously, a problem with the emergence in recent decades of a cadre of career politicians who make their way to Westminster via think-tanks, local government and the party machinery, and have very little experience of life outside politics, the topsy-turviness of the electoral process means that such people do need some financial cushion if they are to risk redundancy every five years; unless, of course, we want to exclude all but the financially independent from Westminster. Worse still, MPs have been told that they will not be allowed to vote on Kelly’s proposals. The reforms will be implemented, possibly with some amendment and dilution, by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). The IPSA was set up by the Parliamentary Standards Act, which was rushed through Parliament in the wake of the expenses scandal. Since the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, and in the absence of the royal veto, which fell into disuse in the early 18th century, parliamentary sovereignty has meant, in reality, the will of the House of Commons. But it is now surrendering some of its authority, under duress, to unelected civil servants, and in the process the clear lines of responsibility that distinguish the British constitution are being distorted.

These changes are symptomatic of wider alterations to the British constitution in the past decade. Devolution and the unresolved West Lothian Question have muddied functional as well as territorial responsibilities in government. Moreover, the new UK Supreme Court, which began hearing cases this autumn in the Middlesex Guildhall, may be about to offer its own subtle challenges to constitutional norms. The new court has inherited not only the appellate role of the House of Lords, but also the jurisdiction of the judicial committee of the Privy Council to adjudicate on contested constitutional matters thrown up by devolution. The European Union has, of course, long presented its own challenges to parliamentary sovereignty, and the cases arising from the Factortame fishing dispute in the late 1980s and early 1990s showed the law lords were willing to cede the supremacy of national law to EU law. Yet today the most potent danger to the sovereign dignity of Parliament comes not from devolution or from Europe, but from indigenous British officialdom, which has usurped the traditional rights of voters and their representatives.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 31 No. 24 · 17 December 2009

Colin Kidd mentions Enoch Powell’s refusal to comply with the new MPs’ Register of Interests on grounds that it undermined the sovereignty of MPs and thus of the Commons (LRB, 3 December). His opposition to Britain joining the EEC was based on the same notion. At that time I thought this eccentric. Now that MPs are being, in effect, regulated by civil servants, with some of them subject to retrospective punishment for receiving allowances to which they were fully entitled, it’s easier to see the force of Powell’s argument.

Patrick Renshaw

Vol. 32 No. 1 · 7 January 2010

In his account of Keith Joseph’s suggestion, in his 1974 Edgbaston speech, that the feckless lower orders should be prescribed contraception, Colin Kidd sadly doesn’t mention that Joseph was referred to by many thereafter as ‘Sir Sheath Joseph’ (LRB, 3 December 2009).

Richard Tagart

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences