Sarah Sands: When even the culprit is a victim

England coach Steve McClaren's exit with a £2.5m pay-off typifies 'get-away-with-it', buck-passing Britain. But was there ever a golden age of honourable resignations?
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The Independent Online

The departure of Steve McClaren was a parable of modern Britain. Following a match so humiliating that emotional sports commentators proclaimed the death of English football, two simultaneous announcements were made. The first was that McClaren would not be resigning as England football coach. The second was that he was about to be sacked by the Football Association. There was never any doubt that McClaren had to leave, but on the manner of his departure depended a £2.5m pay off.

Brian Barwick, the FA chief executive who appointed McClaren, did not resign either, despite the unanimous view that he'd chosen the worst coach in living memory. Barwick talked instead of lessons learnt. McLaren promised that he would, too: "I will learn from my failure."

We may have no English team to speak of, but it has been a good time for personal development. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown weighs in with a marvellous piece of Stalinist logic. If we cannot win football games by conventional means, we shall simply change the rules. Let us speak no more of European championships! We shall play at home instead, if necessary by ourselves. We cannot lose because the players are not the rich, vain halfwits we mistake them for but "a golden generation".

The title was bestowed on them by the FA's former chief executive, Adam Crozier, who went on to preside over the golden age of the Royal Mail. Steve McClaren could argue, unwisely, that his resignation would have been pointless. Who can even remember the name of the head of HM Revenue and Customs who took the bullet after the loss of a few million names, addresses and bank details? (Paul Gray, for what it is worth.)

Everyone agrees that the problem is systemic. Maybe we have to wait for Brown's new "platinum generation" of unborn English footballers. McClaren and the FA have shuffled away from the scene of the crime and into the stands. "We are as disappointed as the fans," they cry.

McClaren made a further statement about culpability, a masterpiece of obfuscation. "I believed I was up to the job when I took it and I still believe it now. But obviously, you are judged by results. I said right at the start I would live or die by results and results haven't gone my way. In that sense we have failed."

In response to McClaren's "in that sense" we might ask what other criteria of success there might be. He appears to accept the brutal verdict that you live or die by results with manly courage, overlooking what seems to have been copper-bottomed, guaranteed compensation for his failure. And note how he switches from "I" to "we" when he describes that failure.

The rules of the non-resignation are: first, distribute the blame so it looks bizarre and unjust to single you out. Second, say how very, very sad you are, as if you are a sympathetic spectator. Third, reassure everyone that lessons have been learnt. Fourth, if none of the above works, then blame a "media witch-hunt" which you are resisting for the sake of democracy.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, is the master of the non-resignation. He survived a no-confidence vote this week by a skilful whipping in of six unelected Home Office appointees and four magistrates. He is a superb modern politician. That is why he survives. That is why the police force distrusts him so profoundly.

Ken Livingstone implied recently that Blair must not be sacked because he had made policing more ideologically acceptable. He has performed a socialist feat. If the police cannot solve crimes, then we must change the definition of crimes and of policing. Everyone at street level knows this. Ian Blair has far more important things to do than solve crime. The police exist to build a new Labour Britain, tough on the middle classes, tough on the causes of the middle classes. Does it matter that Sir Ian Blair did not resign over the shooting of an innocent man? Like most calamities, it turned out to be a succession of assumptions and misunderstandings with a dollop of farce.

A police officer drops his trousers at the wrong moment, fails to see the suspect and events proceed with relentless distorted logic. Who should we single out? The policeman who fired the shot? But he did so in good faith. The woman in charge of the operation, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick? She did not intend the shot to be fired. Furthermore, she is a rare senior woman in the police force and it would be a pity to lose this talent.

So what about Ian Blair, the man who was blissfully unaware of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes until the following day? The man who now finds support from the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith. Let us remember that Smith has felt the heat herself recently over the chaotic immigration system. Public figures in trouble find camaraderie in wounded indignation.

But someone has to take the blame and the easiest thing is to frame The Press, with its inky little fingerprints. Ian Blair and Jacqui Smith assume an air of determination and dignity. Like Gloria Gaynor, they grow strong, they learn how to carry on.

Public scandals are now seen through the prism of Oprah Winfrey. No one is allowed to be ruined by them because it contradicts our culture of mitigation and personal growth. Even culprits are victims.

However, if nobody is ever held accountable for disasters, a spirit of cynicism and corruption settles in. Bosses who "get away with it" lose their moral authority with their staff. Morale is sapped. Nobody takes pride in their job.

There is something cathartic about resignations; they are disturbing and exhilarating, they raise standards of performance and of behaviour. One has to trawl back a long way to find a glorious resignation rather than the sarcastic, forced departures of Stephen Byers, David Blunkett or Peter Mandelson.

The model is still Lord Carrington, the Conservative Foreign Secretary who resigned over the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. He said in his letter: "I have been responsible for the conduct of that policy and I think it is right that I should resign. The fact remains that the invasion of the Falkland Islands has been a humiliating affront to this country."

Imagine how bracing it would have been if McClaren had announced even before the drenched and dejected players had left the field that he was responsible for the conduct of the policy and that the fact remained that Croatia's victory was a humiliating affront to this country?

It is unimaginable that McClaren would or could make such a speech. Of course, there is a class aspect to all this. We live in a meritocratic, non- deferential society. The rhetoric of noblesse oblige looks anachronistic. Also, it is indisputably easier for someone of independent means to make a principled gesture. Perhaps that is why we don't have them any more.

Lord Carrington's background is Eton, Sandhurst and Grenadier Guards. He is a toff who adhered to a military code of honour founded on the personal responsibility and accountability of the commanding officer.

In a different but no less splendid way there was the scorchingly righteous and theatrical resignation of Robin Cook over the invasion of Iraq. He may have forfeited the pay-off, but he alone showed hands free of blood. Had he lived, he would have tormented Gordon Brown with his superior moral compass.

Something has happened to this country. We are over- regulated and over-protected and timid. We are over-assessed and under-performing. Everyone seems to be moving a step away from their jobs in order to hang on to them.

On the letters page of a daily newspaper a consultant writes that he is ready to operate but stands idle because the number of beds have been miscalculated and nobody has sterilised the equipment.

We shrug and roll our eyes. We know that incompetence goes unpunished and that performance is unrelated to punishment or reward. What can we do about this dreary, listless era of bureaucratic incompetence? The boss class no longer has time to save the country. They are too busy saving themselves.

Further reading: 'Reflecting on Things Past: The Memoirs of Peter Lord Carrington' (HarperCollins)