It’s easy to assume everyone surrounding Boris Johnson is on the run when we’re faced with such overwhelming evidence of justice and hubris, as presented by the latest lockdown revelations that hit the backyard of Number Downing Street. 10 enjoy.
It’s one rule for them and the other for us, we crow. As so often, the truth is less simple or just as easy to condemn. Because even though 100 people were invited to that particular illegal rave in the summer gardens of the prime minister’s residence, reports suggest only 30 showed up. What happened to the rest?
Undoubtedly, among the remaining 70 invitees, many were shocked by what they saw in that email, the light-hearted references to soaking up the sun and rewards for hard work. There would be relatives of nurses working exhausting and emotionally difficult shifts in Covid wards. There would be those with parents isolated in care homes, their minds writhing like a coil during the endless weeks when they were unable to connect with their families.
There would be men (I think we can be pretty sure the recipients were mostly men) whose partners sent endless desperate messages from home as they struggled to hold onto their own careers with no daycare or school open or a grandparent to help. There would be others who had taken family members on leave and who were now deeply concerned about their future earning potential. And inevitably, somewhere in that list, there would be the next of kin.
So why didn’t any of them whistle at the time and leak that email? You might be tempted to argue that the failure betrays a moral flaw at the heart of the civil service, as even those who were not moved to play croquet with Boris on the lawn – whether out of a wise eye for their own physical safety, or because of the mammoth exercise in cognitive dissonance it would require – didn’t do the right thing and stopped right away.
Especially when the public had clearly shown their dismay at Dominic Cummings for thinking he could reinterpret the rules of self-isolation to suit his own family circumstances. But I do not think so. Something more insidious is going on.
The culture of fear, of blame and of burying bodies to climb a greasy pole is endemic in politics and throughout the civil service, and even the wider public sector. This kind of silence, quietness, or ignoring the obvious evil goes up and down in Whitehall and beyond, in town halls in every conurbation, in hospitals, in council offices, in schools and other institutions. People don’t just ignore what they shouldn’t do because they’re selfish, but because there’s too much at stake. Whistleblowing may be the right thing to do, but only the financially very fortunate or the largely emotionally untethered can afford to do it, as the result is career suicide.
If you, a senior civil servant with a mortgage to pay and three children to support, throw open a window to let in a ray of cleansing sunlight, your life will be changed immeasurably. You lose your job and income, and your planned career path. Any prospective employer — even in the charitable sector, which has its own very strong reputation for this sort of reproach and culture of silence — could praise your bravery in public but would be very reluctant to assume you as you’ve shown you are. a little renegade, willing to wash dirty underpants in plain sight of the neighbours.
Some of this reluctance and fear can be explained as a side effect of the work done in government. The public sector is a place where mistakes are made, and that’s not a criticism. Those who design social policy must be able to iterate and test ideas. If a failed plan that results in a little mis-spent government money (albeit towards better, more effective policies) leads to some sort of naming and shaming, then the improvements would stop too. So some of this nastiness at pronouncing is built into the job.
But that alone doesn’t explain Boris’ backyard drinking or the degree of silence that’s clearly endemic to Whitehall.
At the time, there may have been a moral majority in numbers, but the culture of fear is so pervasive that any urge to act upon obligations is dulled, questioned, and eventually reasoned out of memory. I imagine a silent conversation between husband and wife at home that day. ‘Maybe I should say something? Can I keep this going? But would it make any difference? It would certainly be better to focus on the pandemic response; a change of prime minister now, or any political instability, would be so dangerous at such a time. No, I better not do that. I’d better shut up.”
To keep up to date with the latest opinions and comments, sign up for our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter at click here
We do not (yet) know whether an internal complaint was filed at the time. Maybe it was. But we do know that 70 people at the heart of government and the civil service feel like they’re working in an environment that simply means they can’t act in accordance with the Nolan Principles, which they are required to follow as a condition of employment. .
These seven principles of good practice in public service delivery include four that are relevant to whether the 70 party rejecters had a contractual obligation to tell us everything that was going on: altruism, accountability, openness, and honesty.
Despite endless reviews and white papers on how and when to protect whistleblowers in the public sector, there is still no legal requirement for any government agency to have a proper whistleblower policy in place. Where they exist, they are worthless. Whistleblowing is always the end of your career, and the guilt culture casts a shadow long enough to silence even the most morally prudish people for deep fear of retaliation. It turns our officials into timid yes-men and dusts the pillars of the Nolan Principles.
We can be pretty sure, having waited nearly two years, that whoever is responsible for the leak of the giveaway email now has a different agenda: to create an environment where imposing another set of social restrictions to to contain the spread of the coronavirus is an absolute impossibility. Well, they did it. And they’ve also shown how many doubles Boris Johnson is happy to live with.
The effect of what we know now is dangerous: Some sane people on Twitter, who have never shown signs of an idiotic conspiracy theory before, claimed yesterday that Johnson may not have had Covid at all in March 2020. Or if he had, he didn’t actually need to be hospitalized and it was all a massive scam designed to scare the public into sticking to the lockdown rules.
The investigation into the treatment of Covid-19 by the British government, chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, is due to start in a few weeks. It feels both far too late and, given that we are experiencing another major wave of infections, perhaps too early. But when the 2020 archive digs begin, it should have both the actions and behaviors of decision makers in mind. The protection of whistleblowers, or rather the lack thereof, should be considered as part of this assessment.
There’s so much we should already know, but don’t, because those who could have told us (and were probably morally inclined to do so) felt they had too much to lose. As a nation, we have already lost so much to Covid-19. Our respect on the global stage as a democracy, our trust in our institutions, and our belief in the values of public service are all at stake now as well.