Photo Source: The Times
Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.
Accountability is undoubtedly the best way to ensure a government keeps to the national interest. However, we know that emergencies can lead to rash judgements and a search to throw someone under the bus. The blame game that we indulge in in is counter-intuitive to solving systemic deficiencies. It attacks our societal fabric and prioritises point-scoring over meaningful change.
Take Social Media; a cesspit for the partisan, the soundbites, and the backlash that faces any big decision made by a leader. Empathy seems to dissipate as a tweet descends from one’s brain to their fingertips, with recent trends of #BorisTheButcher and #TrumpOwnsEveryDeath. These fads show an intentional misunderstanding of how limited politicians are in both their decision-making and ability to be prepared for emergencies.
In a crisis, more than ever, you also see the emergence of conspiracy theories. Take the astounding accusation that 5G towers are being built to spread the Coronavirus, or the inhumanely-coined phrase ‘Bush did 9/11’. As panic sets in, hysterical opinions emerge, and people want someone to blame for the mess that everyone is in.
To cement these cruel accusations and conspiracies, people resort to sharing fake news to make their point. Just a couple of days ago, rumours spread that Jeremy Corbyn was the only ‘decent’ MP to donate his £10,000 ‘work-from-home’ budget to the NHS, when in actuality, the money was not given as a grant at all. Thousands of people shared this lie, and Corbyn himself had to refute it.
As we can see, it is very easy for someone to respond to a crisis with apathy, then descend into conspiracy and blatant mistruth. We then reach a situation where leaders are delegitimised as they are associated with ridiculous allegations, and the truth becomes muddled further with prominent polemicists adding legitimacy to these falsehoods. Even journalists and opinion leaders can fall into the trappings of hysteria and assumption as the crisis develops in real time.
Yet politicians are incapable of the damage they are usually ascribed with. When this pandemic began, the army were not involved in the delivery of PPE to NHS Trusts. They did not act as an employer for the entire population, and MPs were voiceless in the decision to increase their individual budgets to deal with three times their usual amount of casework. The escalation of demand was unprecedented, yet this seems to have been outright ignored by blamers.
We have seen visible consequences of the blame game during British crises. Death threats are part and parcel of the job for MPs now, and mental health among representatives has deteriorated. The sensationalism of British politics during the EU referendum surely played into the tragic death of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox. Those who demonise individuals with words should not feel guilty for these atrocious acts, but our society must understand that finger-pointing is only helping the extremists find their next victim. Neither will it allow our delegitimised politicians to fix the problems.
In a crisis, we should not be criticising government for the sake of accountability. We do not need to make noise just to fill the silence. Every citizen must do better. For both the mental health of our struggling representatives, and for the sake of being able to construct a better argument, we should go beyond secondary sources (newpapers, opinion leaders, social media) and only engage with primary sources.
Instead of accepting other people’s opinions on this pandemic, we have to look at death rates, infected rates, NHS capacity, cross-country comparisons, social gathering figures. You can’t find the multitude of explanations for certain outcomes in a character-limited tweet, or a tabloid column which inherently aims to narrow down outcomes to a particular source. This way, there will be more rationale behind government critique by citizens during emergencies, and we will see that pandemic deaths cannot be ascribed to one single person.
The public inquiry that will follow the current pandemic should rewrite every contingency plan in existence and hold our current system to account. We should be hearing from the nurses, doctors and patients as well as the statistical analysts making sense of the figures from the frontline.
However, please remember that no one stands to gain from the mass loss of life in a pandemic, and it is therefore wrong to assume that any individual would be responsible for that. No-one can claim victory when there is no one to defeat except the virus itself. Yes, we should be pointing out institutional problems, but we should not ascribe them all to a single human being.
Politicians work for us, but we should never forget that they are one of us too.
BSc Politics and International Relations
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Cooper, J. (2020). ‘#TrumpOwnsEveryDeath is one of the top trending hashtags in the United States.’ Twitter. April 2nd. Available at: https://twitter.com/joncoopertweets/status/1245815639559647232 (Accessed 17th April 2020).
Fildes N, Di Stefano M & Murphy H. (2020). How a 5G coronavirus conspiracy spread across Europe | Free to read’. Financial Times. April 16th. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/1eeedb71-d9dc-4b13-9b45-fcb7898ae9e1(Accessed 17th April 2020).
Duffy, N. (2020). MPs aren’t ‘paying themselves £10,000 extra’ to work from home – it’s a contingency fund for staff’. The i. April 10th. Available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/fact-check-mps-paying-themselves-100000-extra-work-home-expenses-fund-2536073 (Accessed 17th April 2020).
Dowden, O. (2020). ‘Why are MPs getting extra £10k in expenses while businesses are collapsing, asks Nick Ferrari’. LBC. April 9th. Available at: https://www.lbc.co.uk/radio/presenters/nick-ferrari/why-are-mps-getting-extra-10k-in-expenses/ (Accessed 17th April 2020).
https://www.england.nhs.uk/2020/03/hospitals-get-ramped-up-for-delivery-of-protective-kit-to-staff-fighting-coronavirus/(Accessed 17th April 2020).
Hardman, I. (2018) ‘Mental Illness’ in ‘Getting Ill’ in ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’. Atlantic Books. ISBN: 978-1782399735. Pp. 162-178. Available at: https://www.waterstones.com/book/why-we-get-the-wrong-politicians/isabel-hardman/9781782399759 (Accessed 17th April 2020).
I agree that, like Jasminka Drakulic argued in they would never hurt a fly, it is important to understand politicians as members of our community, because it ensures responsibility of us as a human community. That being said, these particular politicians (Johnson and Trump) are leaders of their parties and in a hierarchical structure like our current political system the responsibility does fall on them, especially as both parties have engaged in well-documented policies of dismantling both domestic and international public health, and the severity of this pandemic at home and abroad is a tangible result of those actions. The blame does not fall singularly on their shoulders, but rather on the edifice they are the figurehead of, and I personally believe that is a fair and accessible (and as old as time) way to ascribe political liability and fault. Trump and Johnson absolutely are responsible for many many aspects of this crisis
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