Leading Article: The long retreat from personal responsibility

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The Independent Online
BROADER questions of personal responsibility are raised by this week's award of damages to the widow of a naval airman who died after heavy drinking. Was it the Royal Navy's fault or his own? In America, a barman can be sued for selling drinks to a motorist who later causes an accident. Tobacco companies are sued by smokers who develop cancer. The idea of personal responsibility is in retreat where once it was a central principle of national life.

Is Britain going the same way? In political and business life there are plenty of signs that we are, but the case of Terence Barrett can be argued both ways. He was a naval airman at the British training base at Bardufoss in northern Norway in 1988 when he choked to death after drinking heavily on his 30th birthday. Judge Andrew Phelan, delivering judgment at the west London county court on Wednesday, tried to make a rough apportionment of responsibility by reducing the damages awarded against the Ministry of Defence in recognition of the fact that Mr Barrett had contributed to his own death by keeping brandy in his cabin.

It can be argued that a grown man who overdrinks should be held entirely responsible for the consequences. The responsibility of his employer need not extend beyond ensuring that he is not allowed to be drunk on duty. But in this case there were mitigating circumstances. Mr Barrett was under military regulations on a remote base. In this case, the Royal Navy had a duty to provide some care in his spare time. Its method of doing so at Bardufoss was to provide cheap drink to discourage its men from going into the local town. Mr Barrett was not exactly obliged to consume the drink, but the Navy was under an obligation to prevent him drinking too much, since Queen's Regulations require commanding officers to discourage excessive drinking. For having failed to do so, Mr Barrett's commanding officer was court-martialled.

Yet the fact that the Navy failed to meet its responsibilities did not necessarily relieve Mr Barrett of his. The reason for the relevant regulation is not, presumably, to save servicemen from themselves but to maintain the operational effectiveness of the services. The implication is that men who overdrink are not capable of performing their duties properly the next morning. The Navy's obligation in this respect is primarily to its employers, the British taxpayers, rather than to the servicemen. For the taxpayer to stump up compensation for the widow is to turn that principle on its head.

The problem, as so often, is to decide how rigorously to apply the principle of individual responsibility in circumstances where the odds are somewhat rigged. Mr Barrett was not at his corner pub back home but in a remote and boring place where cheap drink was deliberately put before him by his employers. Many people, imagining themselves in his shoes, will find that charity prevails over moral rigour and applaud his wife for her long and courageous fight. It is, after all, no mean achievement to have forced a large bureaucracy to take responsibility for something.