A couple of weeks ago, the papers were again full of criticism of the former prime minister. His one time chancellor Alistair Darling was sticking the boot in. It was an attack on the man’s personality, not his policies: a savage criticism of his management style, not his achievements. He stands accused of being a bully who did not tolerate dissent and didn’t encourage debate.
The hypocrisy in all this is the pretence that this is an unacceptable and untypical management style when in fact it is part of a widespread culture in politics and the public sector. The people who rise to the top tend to be the scary bullies.
They are the ones with the personalities so dominant and self belief so uncritical that people around them shrink. They promote Yes men and Yes women. Their decisions and mistakes go unchallenged. Without genuine debate, collective responsibility becomes a question of personal loyalty or fear. Senior colleagues own the decisions through commitment to the leader or through fear of the leader. Neither, however, make for good decisions.
The argument centres on Nick Clegg now. Is Clegg just a Yes man to David Cameron’s policies? Are the Liberal Democrats being bullied by their Conservative counterparts? Many would claim so, although the recent Health Bill concessions would suggest some balance is in operation.
However, the majority of observers would agree that the coalition is not run on a 50-50 split. Moreover, Cameron and Osborne are trying to push policies which many Lib Dem MPs and supporters directly oppose.
It might not be on the same level as Alistair Darling’s comments on Gordon Brown, but if we don’t want this type of leadership to prevail - and we shouldn’t - then we need to stop focusing on the individual and concentrate on the merits of the arguments. Where they exist, we need people who will stand up to the bullies, not Yes men and women.
A story about responsibility…
The curtains were drawn and the flat was in darkness even though it was mid afternoon. There was a strong smell of burning. The lights didn’t work. The electricity had been cut off. It was colder inside the flat than out side. There was not a stick of furniture in the living room and no carpet on the floor.
In the centre of the room were the charred remains of a recent fire made of twigs, waste paper and broken furniture. A quick check revealed the tenant was known to mental health services but they said he did not have a mental health problem. According to the psychiatrist he just had an awkward personality and possibly a mild learning disability.
The combined health and social service leaning disability team disagreed. There was no evidence of a learning disability. The local social service team for older people didn’t want to know because he was under 65. Housing said they had received complaints from neighbours but had failed to find anyone in when they called. The benefits agency said he had failed to keep a number of appointments despite several letters so they had stopped his money weeks ago. “That usually does the trick,” the benefits officer said.
No one wanted to accept responsibility but everyone felt someone should do something.
The story has a happy ending. The worker at the drop in centre got the benefits restarted, the electricity back on and some second hand furniture.
The issue is not, what powers do agencies have?, or what rights an individual has, but who is going to take responsibility to sort out the problems.
In the end it wasn’t that difficult but it could have been a very different ending: an eviction, a charge of arson or a compulsory admission to psychiatric hospital. Or something even more tragic.