I may have many faults, but being wrong isn't one of them


Some time ago, we went to the dry cleaners in a town called Flers in Normandy. Having handed in the clothes to be cleaned, the lady at the counter naturally asked for our name. Heather gave it to her - Buckingham - and then, as the lady, unsurprisingly, looked uncertain, spelt it out in her best French accent. Everything was fine except that we could see that the first letter was a P and not a B. So we both pointed to it and said, in French, ‘no, the first letter is a B'. ‘Yes', she said, ‘a P'. ‘No', I said, ‘B as in...', and as my mind had gone blank and I couldn't think of anything simple, I said ‘Baignoire' (bath). ‘Yes', she said, ‘P as in Peignoir' (dressing gown). Her younger colleague, perhaps with better hearing, sitting a few metres away was muttering ‘no, its B, not P'. Eventually, by reference to Buckingham Palace and then actually writing the letter down, we managed to convey to her what letter it was. Clearly, though, she did not want to accept that we probably knew better how to spell our name than she did, and so carried on insisting that her spelling of it was in fact correct.

We are all, of course, reluctant to admit to being wrong. Once we have expressed a view, we are likely to hold on to it, finding some justification, however tenuous, for the opinion. We don’t like to look silly. In our case, the opinion expressed is unlikely to be of major importance to others, and so in a fairly short while it is likely to be forgotten by everyone, including ourselves. Politicians however, seem to be in a different situation. Like the rest of us, they are unwilling to admit any kind of error. But for them it is more difficult to walk away from something said without thinking. Their words often come into the public space and so acquire indelibility. If it is just an MP with no official position, then a gaffe might not make it to the front page, or if it does, then an apology will usually be sufficient, granted the relative unimportance of the person concerned.

The difficulty arises, however, later on in that person’s career when, granted the power of technology both to record and then quickly find what people have said, the new minister will be presented with his past utterances.  Journalists love that part of their job. And I’m sure that MPs with ministerial cravings - sorry, ambitions - take courses in how to obfuscate and even deny what they’ve plainly said. There is always some other explanation - that they were taken out of context, misquoted or misunderstood.

Of course there does come a point at which a political leader can accept, not his own errors, but the errors of past leaders of his party. This though only happens after a long interval. It has taken a very long time for the Conservatives to admit that Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Poll Tax’ was a dreadful error. Margaret Thatcher was and is totemic for the right of the party and so admitting that she could have been wrong on such a major point was unthinkable. And amongst many there is still the idea that she was right in principle, but that her ministers, faced with an unreasonable public, were unable to make it work in practise.  It's rather like Corbyn's claim to have won the argument even though he was trounced at the last general election.

I don’t want to be too hard on our politicians, however. We have 650 MPs in the House of Commons, 285 of whom are in opposition parties and therefore have a very limited role in political life. It is very difficult to make a difference without access to power and it is the government that has the power. There are perhaps 150 MPs who have a role in government, but there are very few who exercise real power. Even the members of the cabinet are not all equal in this respect. I remember listening to a discussion between some former Members who never became ministers. They talked about their feeling of futility. They wanted to change the world, but they knew that, in fact, they were only there to vote as the government - as some of their colleagues - had decided.

And when you think who among all the politicians have made a real difference - for good - there are not many. Lloyd George, a liberal, laid the foundations of public assistance in 1910 with his 'People's Budget', against the very strong resistance of the rich. Winston Churchill was instrumental in winning the second war and economist William Beveridge and Labour Minister Aneurin Bevan were together responsible for the creation in 1948 of our National Health Service. Margaret Thatcher, yes the Blessed Margaret, reduced the unbridled power of the unions. Tony Blair made a difference in Kosovo and an unwanted difference in Iraq. Dave decided to have a referendum and... But notable successes are very rare and there is almost always the involvement of a great element of luck - to be in the right place at the right time. It's not even possible to be sure that you've managed to change things for the good until many years later, because life is too complex to predict.

There are though certain basic things which a government is there to do. Amongst them is the protection of its people. Usually, that is interpreted as meaning protection against a foreign power. But it also means against a pandemic – the likelihood or actually the inevitability of which has been predicted with monotonous regularity by the experts. So then, what can we say about the government’s actions in the present crisis?

Obviously it has tried very hard to do the right thing. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor has done well with his very extensive financial measures, but they were only needed against a background of a complete lack of preparedness for a pandemic. The rest of the government's response has involved playing catch-up to stop the NHS from being overwhelmed and the number of deaths from reaching epic proportions. In contrast, South Korea was prepared, because they had learned from their own lack of preparedness for the Sars epidemic. Their public demanded expenditure on all the different elements which might be needed and the government stock-piled testing kit, the means to produce the chemicals for the tests and the laboratory capacity which that implied. They also have a high tech, connected society so that tracing becomes so much easier, with the result that the sort of lock-down we are seeing in Europe has not so far been necessary. This of course means that it produces less of an economic downturn and so less by way of the financial measures forced on the Chancellor to keep our economy going.

Our government’s mantra has been that they are following the science, but what they don’t say is that they are doing so within the context of what is possible granted our very poor starting position. Will they ever be able to admit that they got it wrong? I doubt it, but I hope that even so we shall learn lessons from what has happened, so that when Covid Z appears from the wet meat markets in China, or maybe from that shadowy government laboratory or the feverish minds of the Illuminati, we shall be better able to respond and not have to close down our society again.

Paul Buckingham

21 April 2020

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