Fictional mobster Andreu Calafat said it best in Netflix series White Lines – “Blame is a bucket of s**t that mediocre men throw around. Real men carry blame on their shoulders.”
Though his phrasing may be toxic, his underlying point is flawless; taking responsibility is the measure of strong character. Failure to accept responsibility is not only unedifying, it’s dangerous. Hurling blame around gets people hurt, but if you don’t accept responsibility, you can’t identify your own role in any failures, and you can’t fix the problem.
This is true in life, and it’s true in politics, and buck-passing is what makes the Johnson-era Tories such a dangerous proposition.
The Conservatives have a pathological addiction
In the age of Johnson, externalising blame for failure has become an addiction. Partly, this is the result of Brexit, a noxious dung pile whose aroma must be ignored at all costs, lest the half-decade of lies be allowed to catch up with the liars. In large part though, this is also about the character of the current and future residents of 10 Downing Street.
Johnson demonstrated that lies and blame could be a useful combination; lie to protect oneself, and blame someone else to deflect further attention. Consequences could be outsourced to others. In video game parlance, this served as a kind of political cheat-code. Rather than bother with the hard work of governing, he could simply make promises, fail to deliver, and direct the resulting opprobrium elsewhere.
Thus, we have border delays that are blamed on the French, the failure of a National Front-style deportation scheme that is blamed on lawyers, and a political defenestration that is blamed on Twitter. Foreigners, lawyers, the left and the BBC, along with trans people and other vulnerable groups are all targeted to ensure focus remains anywhere but on the truly responsible. Liz Truss may have Theresa May’s charisma, but she has Boris Johnson’s eye for evasion, and has already blamed her own ludicrous idea to impoverish civil servants on media misinterpretation. The Conservative Party top brass now seems pathologically incapable of accepting responsibility.
Lessons from history
The history of the 20th century provides ample evidence of what can happen when blame is consistently hurled at an ethnic or national out-group. While there are no signs that the government favours an organised campaign of violent persecution against its own citizens, we can also find hideous warnings from the 21st century.
Consider stochastic terrorism. It’s the phenomenon whereby warped individuals, radicalised by inflammatory rhetoric, take the business of revenge into their own hands. The United States predictably provides the most horrific examples of this type of attack, but Britain is no stranger to assaults on minority groups. Famously, the immediate wake of the referendum saw a temporary uptick in hate crimes, as norms were distorted in the wake of a particularly toxic campaign.
The Johnson government has demonstrated no desire to use violence against its own citizens, but has been happy to show a cavalier attitude when others threatened it. In the autumn of 2019, when Paula Sheriff MP spoke of receiving death threats spurred on by Johnson’s language of “surrender” and “betrayal,” Johnson gleefully described her comments as “humbug.” Politicians are not the only potential source of dangerous, resentful rhetoric, but when they engage in it, it brings a respectability that can’t be found in anonymous tweets, hackneyed Facebook memes or the rantings of extremists in the street.
The January 6 attacks on the US Capitol show us the consequences. The American electorate has been prepared by decades of open propaganda to disbelieve reality, but it took misdirected blame to drive them to an attempted putsch. Rather than accept the responsibility for a dismal campaign in which he actively tried to dissuade his voters from postal voting during a pandemic, Trump took the coward’s way out, and blamed others.
The result? A makeshift gallows erected at the seat of the US government.
Could it happen here?
It is easy to say “it couldn’t happen here,” but before we do so, let us watch the ‘stab in the back’ myth being perpetuated by Johnson supporters even now. “It couldn’t happen here” is a comforting fairytale we have been telling ourselves through previously unthinkable events like the vote to leave the EU, the elevation of Boris Johnson to foreign secretary and then to Prime Minister, and the government’s woeful pandemic response. Moreover, the coming months are set to make people more desperate, not less; as MI5 says, we are only ever four meals away from anarchy.
Of course, violence and anti-democratic catastrophe aren’t the only possible outcomes of blame culture. Endless failure to accept responsibility also invites mistrust of politicians, and of politics in general which, according to the IPPR, is now at an all-time low. Blame is not the root cause of this; as the IPPR’s own report says, this is a wider malaise stemming from antiquated democratic systems, and a growing gap between political promises and the experience of daily life.
Still, a culture of blame is a major obstacle to resolving these problems. In its failure to accept responsibility for anything, the Johnson-era Conservative party also fails to acknowledge its own power to create solutions. Governing effectively requires assembling a talented team, setting a strategy and creating a plan, ensuring financial provisions are made to support it, getting buy-in from key stakeholders, weighing up the evidence, constantly measuring results, and calibrating your responses to those results accordingly. All these things require diligence, patience, and tedious hard work.
Relying on blame, however, merely requires a prime minister to open their mouth to make bold promises, and then open their mouth a second time to blame someone else. To rely on blame is an abdication of responsibility in favour of indolence, and one that is common to the current and future prime minister.
When responsibility is abandoned
When responsibility is abandoned, consequences pile up awaiting acknowledgement. A government that promised 40 new hospitals is not only on track to fail on that promise, but actually delivered the longest waiting list in history. Promises like “levelling up,” are easily made, but devilishly difficult to keep, even for a government committed to discharging its duty. In the meantime, our high streets continue to be hollowed out, and our schools continue to crumble.
Voters could be forgiven for giving in to disengagement in the face of a government that talks big but fails to deliver on the most basic requirements of a civilised society. While bumper profits for the wealthy and poverty for the workforce may sound to some like the Conservative Party’s raison d’etre, we must also consider the role that blame has in neutering its response to crises. When a prime minister decides that appearances are all that matters, and is supported by a compliant news media, they have created a recipe for political inaction.
Without arresting that cycle, they face taking an impoverished population to some extremely dark, anti-democratic places. Even in a best case scenario though, habitual Conservative failure to grow up and take responsibility will aid the country’s continued slide into financial calamity and dysfunction.
The Tories need to kick their blame habit; it’s making the rest of us sick.