David Cameron has a bee in his bonnet which, with uncommon chutzpah, he frequently lets out for a buzz and which he calls, with unfashionable candour, "responsibility". Sometimes he tags on "moral", sometimes "social", sometimes "civic"; the gist, in all cases, is the same.
According to the Conservative leader, we need more of it but are taking less; thwarted by an obsession with "legislation and regulation as the answer to every problem" (this month) we shy away from the "responsibility, mutuality and obligation" (last month) that would redeem us.
He suggests, for example, that it is the responsibility of all society to end child poverty – in the process nicking from Hillary Clinton that which she nicked from Africa in the first place: "It takes a village to raise a child." And on particularly brave days, which is to say when the polls are looking pretty, Mr Cameron dares even to propose that the poor, the fat, the alcoholic and the drug addict have only themselves to blame for acting as if, "these things are purely external events like a plague or bad weather".
He declares, of course he does, that he is not endorsing the philosophy of laissez-faire – for what it's worth, I do not entirely believe him – and prefers to coin his vision of a "big society" in place of Labour's "big state". His opponents, especially perhaps his instinctive rather than his intellectual opponents, drag up the ghosts of John Major's ill-fated back-to-basics and for good measure bellow "Thatcherism!" which, as we know, always settles everything.
The more difficult response for some of us to digest is that – as our gentleman friend landing from Mars on any day in recent weeks would likely observe – Mr Cameron might have a point. He might, even, be right.
The erosion of personal responsibility has crept upon us to the level of national malaise, regardless of particular interest or preoccupation. It is not just muck around the practitioners of politics, even if they might not be a bad place to start; certainly a dispassionate dip into their recent and current shenanigans makes for queasy reading.
Take, for instance, the Chilcot inquiry into the nascent days of the Iraq conflict. Even though it is barely under way, we turn on our televisions to see yet another "key player" – a great many of whom we do not recognise – tripping over himself to disavow an apparent earlier inclination for war. Fair enough, if that was really how they felt. But do you not wonder why they didn't say so at the time?
Where were the mandarins thumping the tables in uncompromisingly noisy disagreement? Or the ambassadors, laying down their lies for the country? Or those so stricken by archaic notions like honour or decency that they felt their only recourse was resignation? Indeed, the late Robin Cook's principled resignation from government was notable not only for the scale of the personal sacrifice – he was still ranked as a potential party leader – but for its aching isolation.
One newspaper toyed recently with before-and-after pictures of the former attorney general Lord Goldsmith: buoyant and boisterous before he had agreed with the legality of war but haggard and drawn, six months later, after he had swallowed and then regurgitated the party line. The conclusion we were intended to draw from the visible change was that his hand had been painfully forced; as a lawyer, however, Lord Goldsmith must know that, "But Sir, he made me do it!" is the defence of the schoolyard not of the grown-up.
Meanwhile, Jack Straw is presumably hard at work preparing for Sir John Chilcot another weasel version of, "Well, I did what I could to stop it", while Sir John Scarlett, who prepared the dossier in which the legendary 45-minute claim was made, conceded to a certain sloppiness of expression; nevertheless, it was not his responsibility that the silly old newspapers failed to understand him correctly.
As an aside: I was a teenager when, in 1968, Enoch Powell made his "rivers of blood" speech, and recall my first political argument being that, although his exact words might not have been as inflammatory as their coverage, he did have a responsibility for knowing how they would be interpreted. I still think so.
The newspapers in turn, however, have a responsibility for interpretation that is too easily dismissed. Jan Moir defended her infamous attack on Stephen Gately, made on the eve of his funeral, by claiming she intended no homophobia and was appalled that any among us might have imagined such a thing. So: not her responsibility to write properly but everyone else's for not reading properly.
For truly breathtaking abdication of responsibility, you might not reach as far back as Miss Moir's contributions but stick, instead, to two weeks of front pages in tabloids and "qualities" alike given over to the tribulations of Tiger Woods. In the process of reporting the escalating toll of misdemeanours, delicious specimens of trailer trash have been able to air the mantra of contemporary young womanhood in which none of them, ever, is responsible for her own actions.
"I didn't mean to hurt Elin [Woods's wife]", professed one lovely, right in the middle of doing so for the second time – the first by bedding Elin's husband, the second by telling the world about it. She had known, obviously she had, that he was married and a father; still, these days, sexual etiquette regarding girl-people is entirely about what is done to you, and otherwise nuffin' to do wiv you. Guv.
Bullets of disapproval rained upon my head last year when I visited the Moral Maze to lament the refusal of young women to take responsibility for their own safety. Boosted by knowledge of their "rights" – basically, that "no means no" which of course it does – they fall into gutters, inebriated beyond comprehension at 3am, wearing next to nothing, and are amazed should assault occur. My critics accused me of asserting contributory negligence, which I wasn't and which rather missed the point – for that would mean holding the rape victim partially responsible for her rape and therefore mitigating the guilt of the rapist. But it's not an either/or, it's an and: he is an inexcusable rapist and she has behaved irresponsibly. Much as, if you leave your door wide open, your goods end up in the hands of an inexcusable burglar and you were a twit.
But we should not be surprised, for refusal of personal responsibility has become the hallmark of a women's movement that fiercely seized control in the 1970s – "I am woman, hear me roar!" – and has now abandoned it. Today, women's progress is measured by court cases dealing with those subjected to, for example, smutty language in a corridor or officers' mess, as a result of which they have succumbed to attacks of the vapours, post-traumatic stress and need large cheques to help them feel better.
Nobody ever asks what responsibility they took at the time to preserve their equilibrium. A riposte in kind? A face-to-face threat to report? If all else failed, a swift knee to the offender's groin? None of the above. Better by far to pass all responsibility to M'Lud and have him sort it out.
Back in the world of boy-people, a similar surrender of responsibility is thriving. For all that it mattered that Thierry Henry handled that ball, it mattered more that he did not accept responsibility for having done so. Yes, he thought after the event that a re-match might be the proper thing – at least, he thought so after he knew it would not be allowed. But no, he did not stop the match at the time – the referee had not spotted the transgression and it's the ref's responsibility, not his. Innit?
As for Nelson Piquet smashing a perfectly darling little Formula One motor car into a wall following instruction to do so, he needs to be taught the same lesson as Peter Goldsmith: because-he-made-me is not the defence of a grown-up.
Clive James, in an elegant broadcast last Sunday, contrasted such behaviour with that of a snooker player – or, more precisely, every snooker player – who would cut off his right cue before neglecting to take responsibility for an error. Dysfunctional as many of them might be, all pool-hall yobbos know that to touch an untouchable ball is to relinquish the table, irrespective of who might or might not have noticed.
All of which, I admit, takes us a long way from affairs like the Chilcot inquiry. But perhaps we cannot have one without the other; if the individual no longer feels a need to exercise personal responsibility for his actions how, then, does he confront a neighbourhood truant? If he places his own squabbles beyond his control, how does he intercede with the ill treatment of someone else? If his own truths are not self-evident, how does he convey them to others?
Perhaps all David Cameron is trying to say is that, when it comes to responsibility, the personal is political. Pity for him that, as natty slogans go, that one's no longer up for grabs.Reuse content