Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Art of Delay

Imagine that David Duckenfield had fessed-up immediately. Instead of John Motson relaying the lie that a gate had been forced at the Leppings Lane entrance, we would have heard that the police had made a tragic error, opening the gate without first sealing off the tunnel into the central pens. Duckenfield would probably have resigned in ignominy, but we can't be sure he would have been convicted of criminally negligent manslaughter. The central accusation against him was one of incompetence arising from a lack of experience in policing football matches generally and Hillsborough specifically, but showing that he had fallen short of expected standards of behaviour would not be clear-cut given the history of crushes at the ground (as recently as the year before) and the contemporary priority on crowd control over safety.

A number of institutions contributed to the disaster, including the FA, Sheffield Wednesday FC, the local council and the ambulance service, but the chief responsibility undoubtedly lay with South Yorkshire Police. However, it is not clear that they would have faced a charge of corporate manslaughter unless it could be proved that the appointment of Duckenfield was itself reckless. Though there were rumours that he secured the post through Masonic connections, it's difficult to believe this would have stood up in court as sufficient evidence. Given the reluctance of the judiciary to allow corporate manslaughter charges in those years (e.g. against P&O over the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987), and the reluctance of the state to allow public criticism of the police (Thatcher's "Is that for us to welcome?" comment on the draft Taylor Report), it's possible that the only consequence for the SYP might have been a civil suit.

This prompts two thoughts. The first is that Hillsborough might now be distant history, like the Ibrox disaster of 1971 that killed 66, had it not been for the determination of the SYP to avoid culpability for itself and its officers, augmented by the reluctance of the state to countenance the possibility of either police incompetence or corruption. Justice delayed is certainly justice denied, but it also serves to amplify the grievance and spread a reputational poison far and wide. I doubt Bernard Ingham is cheered by the knowledge that his impending obituaries will prominently feature an offhand comment about "tanked-up yobs". The second conclusion is that culpability often fails to settle because of the uncertain relationship between individuals and organisations, which brings us neatly to the long-awaited Chilcott report on the Iraq War, which we are told will now appear in July.

Jackie Ashley nicely (if obliviously) highlights these two points in her plea that the report "shouldn’t be used to pin the blame for Iraq on one man". She's wasting her breath. The reason why Tony Blair is going to get a thoroughly good kicking is because he never admitted his culpability either in conspiring to engineer a war or in neglecting to plan for the consequences (the subsequent "regrets" have been mealy-mouthed and self-serving). In seeking to spread the blame beyond the man, Ashley gets to the heart of the issue concerning the relationship of individuals and organisations in decision-making: "It’s the failure of an over-centralised prime ministerial office, too small to have real intellectual and research heft yet arrogant enough to overrule FCO advisers".

Though she then tries to deflect attention onto the institutional failings of Parliament (which should "challenge the executive boldly when it counts"), the locus of the problem is clearly the "den" at Number 10 where Blair conducted his now infamous "sofa government". The studied informality of neoliberal political practice since the 90s clearly borrows a lot from the corporate world, from naff dressing-down to the overuse of "guys" as a form of address. But this is superficial and fails to appreciate that corporate fashions, like business consultancy buzzwords, come and go. The form is still the "privy counsel" familiar to Machiavelli, in which insiders are expected to adopt a cynical and instrumental attitude. Blair's sofa government was little different to Wilson's kitchen cabinet or Nixon's inner circle.

The popular representation of the political executive is misleading. Whether in the guise of the verbal farce of Yes Minister or the mockumentary of The Thick of It, drama demands antagonism. In reality, antagonism is the enemy of political decision-making (see Blair vs Brown), just as it is the substance of political theatre (see PMQs). Outside the public gaze, the instinct of politicians is always to reduce the circle of power and thus lessen the likelihood of conflict. This has two consequences. First, those who want to gain access to the inner circle know that their best approach is congeniality, which encourages groupthink and conformism. Second, those who find themselves burdened by responsibility seek to deal with the psychological stress through deflection (e.g. invoking God or the spirit of history) or denial. The latter tends not to be a flat contradiction but a process of delay and obfuscation.

Ashley suggests that "What we deserve to see climbing out of the wreckage of this is a reformed Whitehall where civil servants with years of experience feel emboldened to challenge ministers". This is naive. A delay in justice may well amplify the anger against individuals (though the evidence suggests it mainly hardens determination), but it also tends to weaken the demands for reform of organisations because they can claim that their procedures and practices have subsequently changed and are no longer a problem. Organisations do not bear a lifetime moral responsibility in the same way that people do, which is one reason why corporate personhood is asymmetric in terms of rights versus responsibilities.

Though David Crompton recently resigned as Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police in the wake of the inquest verdict, that was because of the behaviour of the force in extending the denial of justice after having admitted responsibility to the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012. Any fresh demands for operational reform will be met by the rejoinder that "it's not the same organisation as it was in 1989". I can be confident in making this prediction because four years ago Crompton stated: "South Yorkshire Police is a very different place in 2012 from what it was 23 years ago and we will be fully open and transparent in helping to find answers to the questions posed by the Panel today". Likewise, any recommendations arising from Chilcott will be met with claims of subsequent compliance or a willingness to review at some future point. In other words, "Move along; nothing to see here".

The delay in the publication of the Chilcott Report, which is simply a further extension of the delay entailed by the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review, means that the state will be able to absorb any blame through a water-under-the-bridge plea. Blair will carry the bulk of the public obloquy, whether fairly or not, but the intervening years mean that he's had the time to secure his winnings in case his name becomes so badly tainted that even dictators won't employ him any more. David Duckenfield will probably face charges, and there is a good chance that the South Yorkshire Police will face a fresh inquiry into their behaviour at Orgreave, but a more general inquiry into policing in the 80s is unlikely, while the evidence from Green Street on Tuesday night suggests that the police are still prone to confuse crowd control and safety. As you were then.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, if there is one thing that is both predictable and meaningless, it's the use of "lessons will be learnt" in any institutional failure (both private and public). The more disastrous the failure, the more reviews are required before we get anywhere near the truth (pace Hillsborough), only to be followed by the more predictable and more meaningless "lessons have been learnt". Balls and long grass inevitably come to mind.