Politicians have a tendency to dodge accountability after crises, but our ‘gotcha’ culture makes that inevitable. We can all do better this time.
First published in April 2020.
Among the contemporary chaos, one prediction can be made with confidence. The coronavirus pandemic will soon lead to an outbreak of divisive and disruptive political blame games. Politicians, policymakers, advisers and experts will all seek to avoid carrying the can for those decisions or opinions that inevitably turned out to be wrong.
Forget about herd immunity, social distancing and flattening curves, the likelihood is that fighting the crisis will be matched by a parallel strategy that revolves around political immunity, blame-distancing and flattening out the public’s demand for a scalp when crisis fatigue sets in. Social solidarity will turn into scapegoating.
Cracks are already showing and will soon grow into political chasms into which some politicians will fall, others will be pushed and others will avoid only to continue their careers in the shadow of the crisis.
To some extent this is inevitable. As the crisis worsens, the pressure is building to levels that today’s generation of politicians have simply never experienced.
Internal discord is festering over who should take responsibility for the strategy so far. The existence of competing political agendas is beginning to grate and grind, the media is sniffing the scent of a scandal over the lack of tests and there are increasingly nervous questions about whether more restrictive measures are now needed.
The simple fact is that even now – right at the very epicentre of the crisis – ministers and their special advisers, officials and their experts will be thinking about who is going to carry the can when the dust settles, the masks come off and the accountability industry kicks in. And kick in it will.
“Some politicians will fall, others will be pushed and others will avoid only to continue their careers in the shadow of the crisis.”
In a low-trust high-blame adversarial polity like the UK’s, the nature of post-event scrutiny is rarely to undertake a level-headed, rational and constructive review of the evidence. Instead, the focus is on apportioning blame, heaping fault, finding scapegoats, pointing fingers and (ultimately) recommending resignations. Accountability is very much of the “gotcha!” variety.
Politics is therefore likely to be defined by coronavirus blame games for some time to come.
Some failure is inevitable
The politics of pandemics tends to be associated with policy failure. This is a critical point. No matter what steps a government might take or how quickly measures are put in place, the fact that, by its very existence, a pandemic brings with it crisis and chaos intermixed with death and suffering ensures that any governmental response will be seen in generally critical terms.
The title of Greg Behrman’s 2009 book The Invisible People: How the US has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time reflects this point. Although it could actually be seen as fairly successful in terms of protecting life, the political reaction to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) pandemic at the beginning of the millennium is generally critiqued in terms of over-reaction or under-reaction. Add to this the manner in which “What went wrong?” seems to be the dominant lens through which responses to both Swine Flu and Ebola are judged. Future reflections on the Coronavirus are unlikely to depart from this pattern.
So, how might we identify and understand the emergence of blame-avoidance strategies, particularly in relation to preemptive self-preservation mechanisms? Political science offers a rich seam of scholarship here too — arguably dating back to Renaissance philosopher Machiavelli.
More recently, R. Kent Weaver and Christopher Hood have shown that politicians are primarily motivated by avoiding blame for failure rather than trying to claim credit for success for the simple reason that the public possess a strong negativity bias. Praise will be as fickle as it is short-lived, whereas vitriol will be as strong as it will be long-lived.
The result is that politicians will use all sorts of tricks and tactics to avoid blame – agenda-shaping, scapegoating, buck-passing, defection, secrecy.
“I can’t help wonder if the experts making up Boris Johnson’s human shield quite understand the political games they may have unwittingly ensnared themselves within.”
Grab the nearest expert
With this in mind, what is interesting about Borisonian politics vis-à-vis Covid-19 is that he has hugged “the experts” to the extent that it has been almost impossible to get a cigarette paper between them. This is possibly even a future blame-avoidance tactic in preparation. The “experts” are now Velcro-linked to the very same politicians who were willing to ridicule and reject them over Brexit.
Yes, different experts and a different topic but it’s striking that every single political decision is now being made explicitly on the basis of “following the experts’ advice”. The sight of Boris Johnson, and now various other ministers, flanked at their daily press conferences by various scientific advisers is a strategic performative act of blame-sharing and blame-displacement.
Can there be a politician more deserving of the term “Teflon-coated” than Johnson? I can’t help wonder if the experts making up his human shield quite understand the political games they may have unwittingly ensnared themselves within.
A plea, therefore, to those who will at some point review and report on the government’s handling of this crisis. It’s very easy to blame and heckle from the sidelines when the war is won. It’s far harder to be the “man [or woman] in the arena” charged with actually taking decisions and coping with complexity.
It really isn’t the critic who counts. It’s the process of building new hospitals, launching new policies, seeking new powers, liaising with other governments, co-ordinating a vast network of organisations, calming the public, reshaping the economy. All must be done on the basis of immediate need and against a backdrop of divided expert opinion. The law of unintended consequences adds another layer or pressure, and the knowledge that these really are matters of life and death yet another.
Under react, over react, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It is inevitable that things will go wrong. A perfect pandemic response is not possible. But who will remember this in the coronavirus blame games?🔷
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