Overview

Emma Crewe is an anthropologist working on politics, governance and identity in civil society organisations and parliament in the UK, South Asia and East Africa based at SOAS, University of London. Her research into international development NGOs began in 1987 and into parliament goes back to the House of Lords in 1998-2002 and the House of Commons 2011-2013.

Scrutiny of blame shifting

The orientation of politics has shifted even further from present to future, as politicians anticipate how events and messages will ‘play’ in the court of public opinion. Boris Johnson’s camp have got in early with their claims that if we leave the EU on 31stOctober with no deal (or don’t leave), then it will be the EU’s fault not his, assuming he becomes PM next month (BBC Radio 4 Today programme this am). Last week Mr Johnson denied that his intervention in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was his fault (when he said she was teaching journalists which was then cited as evidence that led to her imprisonment in Iran). The blame lies with the Iranian government, he cried.

We seriously need to take a closer look at what constitutes responsibility, and therefore blame, in political world. If you have a highly individualised view of the world, where responsibility for action lies only with indivdiduals, then you might indulge in fantasies that one person (or entity like a government) can achieve or commit actions on their own. But that makes no sense in relation to our experience. It is surely more logical to acknowledge that our individuality works simultaneously (even paradoxically) along with the social nature of human existence bearing in mind that we interact with others continually and create recognisable patterns in relationships, behaviour and meaning-making. You can’t pretend that these patterns are merely the aggregate of individual impulses because they vary between cultures in partially predictable ways. But this does not mean you can blame ‘the culture’ for the actions of individuals or groups, because cultures don’t have agency – only people do.

The blindingly obvious conclusion of this is that responsibility is both individual held – and those in more powerful positions should feel and take that responsibility most keenly – but also shared across groups. So Mr Johnson may share responsibility with key actors in the Iranian government, and the latter may have a bigger share in Zaghari-Ratcliffe's case, but that doesn’t mean he can shrug off his culpability for committing a grave error. On the case of Brexit, if we leave the EU with no deal, after he says again and again and again in his leadership campaign that it is possible to broker one before October, then on that occasion he will be the individual with the greatest responsibility for the consequences post October 2019. But he will share it with those who voted for him, and even more those who campaigned with him, to be PM.

I can hear my grandchildren (Inshallah) asking me in 25 years time, when Britain (minus NI and Scotland) are beginning to recover from the economic disaster of no deal, “why did your generation allow Mr Johnson to become PM knowing he would do this?” I might say, “it wasn’t my fault. It was Conservative MPs and members who chose him,” but what if they reply, “yes but did you do enough to warn them?” To counter that I am an academic so have to remain neutral, and anyway have no influence, sounds a bit lame. So I too am anticipating the future and wondering how my actions will play in the court of my grandchildren’s opinion. Here's to hoping that one flap of a gnat's wings can stop a hurricane.

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