Government kills


May 21, 2024By Richard North

A large and important piece, borrowed from Richard North's Turbulent Times 

It is rare these days that I find myself being able to commend the writing of a legacy media journo, but even on second and third reading, the piece by Sherelle Jacobs in today’s Telegraph comes over as powerful and coherent.

Headed: “The infected blood scandal exposes the toxic mendacity of our ruling class”, she tells us in her sub-heading that “Britain’s unspoken vice is elite secrecy”, adding that: “we are waking up to how long we have been taken for fools”.

Her theme is as straightforward as it is powerful, asserting that there is “an unspoken phenomenon that quietly threatens the position of the British establishment”, one which might be described as “perma-gate” – the endless string of elite scandals that are shining a light on the corrupted machinations of the state.

Like others – and especially evident on Twitter – Jacobs links three “national outrages”, starting with the infected blood disaster, moving on to the Post Office scandal and then taking in the pandemic response. Assessed individually, she argues, they elicit an impotent shiver of revulsion from a deferential, if disillusioned, nation. Together, though, they are dynamite.

The picture illustrating her piece is a still from All the President’s Men and her text refers to the Watergate episode across the pond, which she says “exploded” faith in democracy and the ruling class – a single episode that exposed American statecraft’s amoral, expletive core.

In Britain, though, this is coming more slowly, Jacobs avers. The suspension of our disbelief in the system is more painstakingly, yet no less profoundly, unravelling, “as we steadily gain a partial but in parts astonishingly detailed artists’ impression of the rancid paternalism that pollutes the state’s every tentacle, from the dingy IT offices of the postal service to the laboratories of backwater haemophilia centres”.

This brings her to the release of the Infected Blood Inquiry’s report, which, she says, has left us to process the revelation that the NHS is not so much a sacred institution as a corrupted priesthood. In its paradoxically paternalist zeal for “clinical freedom” it has allowed doctors to follow unsafe treatment policies and practices, with some exploiting this so far as to experiment on children.

But, as so often – and was certainly the case with Watergate, it is not so much the initial events which do the damage as the subsequent attempt to cover up the errors. And in this case, as the horrific fallout became clear, our hallowed health service refused to acknowledge its errors, instead retreating into a basilica of lies, obfuscation and destruction of evidence.

If there was something seedily mafia-esque about the subterfuge that characterised the Post Office scandal, Jacobs characterises the cover-up surrounding “the biggest treatment disaster in NHS history” as one with whiffs of impudent zealotry.

We must, she says, come to terms with the revelation that for years successive governments and the Civil Service disseminated fake news. With a bland militancy it maintained over several decades, it stuck to the mendacious narrative that the blood infections were a tragic and regrettable development, which occurred because of a lack of understanding of the risks.

Helpfully, she points out that the Inquiry report – running to seven volumes – details how false orthodoxies (albeit described in the arid language of officialdom as “lines to take”) entrenched themselves. “Dogma became a mantra. It was enshrined. It was never questioned.”

And then she comes to the politicians. As a collective, they frame the blood scandal as a historic “injustice”, churning out their platitudes about a “shameful” episode that is “hard to even comprehend”, culminating in a ritual apology from Sunak, no doubt carefully drafted by his advisors, calculated to balance gravitas with just the right amount of contrition.

Jacobs dismisses this sackcloth and ashes routine as an “attempt at psychological distancing”, and it is here that she offers an observation that makes this piece so special. In this, she says, “we the public are partially complicit. Delayed justice has become a grim ritual of a country which loves authority just a little too much”.

Picking up on all three current inquiries, she argues that what makes them so powerful is how they are exposing pathologies of the British state that are not historic but eternal. The past treatment of haemophiliacs, she says, speaks to an enduring culture of cover-up that officials have warned is still endemic in the NHS, with hospitals still hiding evidence of poor care.

Crucially, she adds that the thing that this inquiry really hits home is that the British culture of elite secrecy is without parallel in the Western world. It is a national puzzle that one might call the British Question, harbouring an archaic ruling class code based on Victorian club governance has barely changed since it was established in the 19th century.

The elite’s culture of honourable secrecy and patronising impunity, she says, has proved bomb-proof, surviving not only democratisation, but recent attempts to build better mechanisms of account into the system. Via a darkly brilliant process of “systems thinking”, an ossified bureaucracy has “learnt” how to preserve itself from democratic scrutiny – burying errors under layers of obfuscation planted by generations of civil servants who stick to an “authorised account of events”.

It is here that I need to depart from Jacobs’ narrative to express my regrets that she never read my book, The Many Not The Few, which revisits the hagiography of the so-called Battle of Britain (which never really existed in the form so beloved of popular historians).

In my research, I found in the early stages of the air war, which centred over the Channel convoys and the ports serving them – known by the Germans as the Kanalkampf – that, surprisingly, despite the RAF having the home advantage, pilot losses were substantially higher on the British side.

This was largely as a result of a pre-war Air Ministry decision that a dedicated air-sea rescue service would not be needed. While the Luftwaffe had its own rescue service, bailed-out RAF pilots were left to drown – at that stage of the war not even being supplied with dinghies.

But what was particularly sinister about the affair was that when the Air Ministry belatedly realised the error of its ways and instructed the RAF to set up a dedicated service – which it did in November 1941, a year after the end of the formally designated battle – it backdated its propaganda and the historical record to make it look as if the service had been fully functional throughout 1940.

On a broader note, I also commented on how pre-war policy on air raid precautions deliberately excluded the provision of deep shelters in London and, when the Blitz started in September 1940, East-enders were initially barred from entering underground stations for shelter, which were locked during air raids and guarded by armed soldiers.

There is no doubt that these policy failures led to the avoidable loss of many lives, but the establishment – now the focus of Sherelle Jacobs’ wrath – did what it always did. It re-wrote history and pretended the failures had never happened, aided and abetted by shoddy historical research and a public determination to embrace the Battle of Britain myth.

I was driven to conclude in my book that, if you rely completely and uncritically on government, its neglect may kill you. Having done so, it will seek to obscure its actions and its responsibilities for them.

Now, Jacobs is writing that a succession of public inquiries reveals to us that our state secrecy is so prolific, so compulsive, so endemic that it threatens to effectively render Britain a failed democratic state.

Such a claim, she hazards, may seem implausibly strong, but the fact remains that the state is technically failing, as it lacks a plausible system of democratic accountability and ministerial responsibility, with the only recourse to truth being the pantomime of public inquiry.

These are as much a gravy train for lawyers as they are the public’s only vehicle, beyond elections, to hold state power to account. Even with their enhanced coercive powers, as we have seen from the blood scandal to Horizon to the Covid inquiry, they are systematically bogged down by subtly uncooperative officials.

Thus, she concludes that Britain’s crisis of institutions is becoming dangerous. It is impossible to ignore the fact that an archaic, entrenched, corrupted bureaucracy – the origin of which predates our democracy by a century – shows little compunction over lying to its people.

In her last paragraph she writes: “The ruling class’s favouring of closed government over democracy, of loyalty over objective truth, of order over freedom, saving face over the preservation of public trust, have emerged so strongly as recurring themes that they surely cannot continue to be a niche preoccupation of Leave voters and lockdown-sceptics, but a burning outrage that unifies the nation”.

In one of the last paragraphs of my book, I wrote that, even in times of extreme peril – or perhaps especially so – salvation does not lie entirely in government. In such instances, it is necessary to take the initiative and make the government conform to the wishes and needs of the people, rather than the other way around. Government, I observed, is a poor master. But it can be an adequate servant if forced to be so.

However, as Jacobs has remarked, this is “a country which loves authority just a little too much”. And before we can expect government to change, that must change. Government is not your friend and, as the evidence accumulates, it is clear that, if you let it, it will kill you. aims to provide efficient and common sense government without the millstone of dogmatic politics