‘I take full responsibility for everything that has happened,’ Boris Johnson told the House of Commons at the end of May, in answer to a question from the SNP leader Ian Blackford. He qualified himself in answer to Blackford’s next question: ‘I take full responsibility for everything that the government did.’ It’s a line he’s been peddling for a while. ‘As prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done,’ he said at a press conference in January, on the day the official tally of Covid-19 fatalities in the United Kingdom passed 100,000.
Since the pandemic began, there has been plenty of talk from the government about responsibility, though usually ours not theirs. As we have tried to navigate more than a year’s worth of confusing advice, we have been instructed, over and over, to exercise responsibility, along with common sense and restraint. Whether we were being rewarded with restaurant discount vouchers or chastised for sitting in a park, the message was the same: each of us has a responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus. But no minister has seemed able to add the words: ‘to one another’.
The elision reflects an ideology according to which the only responsibility we really have is personal – to ourselves and our dependents. But the co-operation required to control the spread of a pandemic disease (for example) won’t emerge from the sum of individuals thinking only of themselves and their families.
The government has been unable to say that we all have a responsibility to one another not to spread the virus. This idea of responsibility is not about the atomised individual and their personal conscience, weighing up the consequences of irresponsibility in terms of private risk against private gain. Rather, it is a relation that recognises each of us as one among manifold others, to each of whom something is owed. In every case, the barest thing: not to make them ill, and not to make them responsible to another for making them ill.
Of course, we know this. We haven’t stayed indoors only because we’ve feared for ourselves and our families. We’ve done it because we care enough about one another, and enough about ourselves, to avoid being responsible for a harm to anyone else. Yes, most of us have slipped, but the thought of what that slip might mean for those around us has kept most of us more or less responsible to one another.
Even in ordinary times, responsibility to one another is often bigger and more wearisome than our pressed lives can bear. We can forget that there are others beyond those closest to us. That is a wholly forgivable feature of human nature, exacerbated by the economic and social conditions we think of as normal, and susceptible to acceleration as those pressures increase. But only so far. The domain of the Conservative idea of responsibility, however, stretches no further than the length of your arm. That idea’s central contradiction has now been exposed by a pandemic that extends far beyond that short reach.
Government messaging about ‘responsibility’ performs two functions. First, it turns our gaze away from the government’s responsibilities by creating the illusion that there are large numbers of people who behave irresponsibly, whose fault it was that the virus was inadequately controlled. And second, it gives the appearance of the government doing something about it (just as Johnson evades accountability by appearing to accept it). But most of us require no reminders of what we owe to one another. The government is all too keen to claim full responsibility for the success of the vaccine rollout, downplaying not only the achievement of the NHS and its workers but also the part played by the general public, evincing an inherent willingness to do what we must to protect one another.
What we do require, however, and has only ever been in the government’s power to grant, is the capacity to make the choices that would enable us to observe the responsibility to one another that we already know. In the case of the pandemic, that would have meant the timely closure of schools, universities and workplaces; clear rules on mask use; financial support for workers and businesses; money for cash-strapped families and individuals; support to allow people to self-isolate properly; a functioning test and trace system; the prosecution of employers who forced their employees to the workplace; timely restrictions on international travel; the list goes on. Time and again, in spite of scientific advice, the government has failed to act or acted too late, blinded by the ideology of personal responsibility.
Boris Johnson isn’t responsible for all of the 128,000 deaths from Covid, or for those left with chronic illness, but he is responsible for many of them (and may be responsible for more to come, as case numbers and hospital admissions are rising again and we wait to hear about the possible lifting of restrictions on 21 June). This is a truth he can’t state, and a burden he can’t bear. That he goes on as prime minister says something about him. He may be unable to hold himself accountable, but when the time comes, the rest of us will have to. If we don’t, that will say something about us.