Arguments about blame and responsibility have already begun. Without a collaboration, times of crisis like the Covid-19 crisis are enveloped in credit grabbing and finger pointing. Both political parties and public service organisations face tricky choices over whether to collaborate or compete over who gets credit and blame.
The dreaded virus faces all political parties in the UK with perplexing choices over what is always a central issue in political life – how to claim credit and handle blame.
During World War II the three major UK parties came together into a grand coalition, suspended general elections and did not compete against one another in by-elections. The grand coalition meant the parties shared the blame for all the privations imposed by government on the lives of millions of citizens - and they also shared the credit for eventual victory, of course. But in the coronavirus case the unprecedented economic losses and restrictions on personal liberty currently being imposed on the citizenry (arguably greater than those imposed in World War II) are being implemented by a single-party government. Even though that government is studiously reaching out to other players, the absence of a formal grand coalition runs the risk of a blame dynamic like that which developed over the conduct of World War I by Herbert Asquith’s Liberal Government. (After initial support amid an atmosphere of patriotic enthusiasm for the war, that government came to be heavily criticised for its mishandling of the military campaign, such that Asquith had to form a coalition government with the Conservatives and Labour in 1915, which was in turn toppled the following year and replaced with another coalition led by David Lloyd George).
That ‘over-by-Christmas’ expectation is probably the reason why no major democracy has yet adopted a formal grand coalition as a response to the coronavirus crisis.
A century or so later, the political strategy of the Boris Johnson government for managing the blame risk of coronavirus might seem comparable to that of Asquith’s government in 1914 in at least some ways. One is the hope and expectation that the episode will be over in a matter of months (just as many in 1914 expected the war to be short, with the UK mainly engaged in naval warfare rather than the land war). Given such a timescale, it might be expected that blame exposure would be limited and short-term and that deep unpopularity over the level of casualties and restrictions could be countered by well-chosen inclusive rhetoric invoking patriotism and solidarity. That ‘over-by-Christmas’ expectation is probably the reason why no major democracy has yet adopted a formal grand coalition as a response to the coronavirus crisis.
A second strategic feature shared with the Asquith government’s choices in 1914 is to fund the ‘war effort’ largely from borrowing, creating a debt mountain and associated fiscal blame issues to be faced by voters and governments in future decades. And a third, loosely reminiscent of the prominence given to generals like Herbert Kitchener at the outset of World War I, is conspicuously to share responsibility with technical experts, studiously ‘following the science.’ As many have observed, we have moved far and fast from ‘had enough of experts’ to ‘can’t have enough of experts.’
The corresponding political risk for the governing party is that one or more of those strategic approaches or expectations will break down or be confounded. After all, contrary to what many supposed in the summer of 1914, World War I did not turn out to be over by Christmas. And we are already seeing divisions among scientists and specialists over issues such as ‘herd immunity,’ approaches to testing and what counts as proper protective equipment, undermining the presumed technical consensus over ‘the science’ that the rhetorical definite article connotes.
For opposition parties, the political challenge is to find ways of criticising the details of the response to the virus emergency and continue to signal their distinctive political brand to the electorate without running the risk of being blamed for ‘playing politics’ with a national crisis that might on some scenarios cause civilian deaths on a scale not seen since the 1940-41 Blitz in World War II. That challenge presents parties that are in opposition at Westminster but in office at subnational level (and thereby included in the UK government’s collective COBRA crisis decision-making machinery) with some tricky choices. For instance, there has already been at least one mutual blaming episode between the London Mayor and the Westminster government, over who was responsible for the contagion risk of crowded London underground trains on 23 March in a time of intended ‘lockdown’. The Westminster government blamed Transport for London (chaired by the Mayor) for reducing the Tube service so much that the trains were too full to allow social distancing. For his part, the Mayor blamed the government for delay in providing financial support for self-employed ‘gig economy’ people, who therefore had to continue to go to work on public transport, exposing themselves or others to contagion risks. Whether that episode turns out to be a single swallow or the beginning of a whole summer of mutual blaming, remains to be seen.
Successful handling of an emergency that cuts so deep into all aspects of social life demands high levels of public cooperation.
Outside the sphere of party politics, what about the bureaucracy and the public services? The coronavirus crisis poses at least three major blame-handling challenges for these players. As we are seeing, successful handling of an emergency that cuts so deep into all aspects of social life demands high levels of public cooperation with sudden and abruptly changing prohibitions on normal patterns of human behaviour - going way beyond what much-vaunted ‘nudge’ initiatives usually involve. It also requires high levels of coordination among multiple agencies and organisations not used to working closely together – rarely a strong point of public bureaucracies. It further requires an effective delivery structure which in turn depends on a positive relationship between a central ‘command centre’ responding to changing events and the people down the bureaucratic food chain who deal with the public and pass key intelligence up the line.
All these challenges present glittering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for credit-claiming if they can be successfully met, but also obvious risks of sparking off blame wars if they are not. The need for public cooperation with unfamiliar and unpleasant restrictions raises the question of who is to blame when restrictions are flouted, for instance in not observing curfews or social distancing. Should such setbacks be attributed to public irresponsibility, selfishness or inattention, or should the blame go onto public authorities for their inconsistency, delay and lack of clarity?
For every credit-claiming opportunity there is a corresponding blame risk for both politicians and others in the government machine to handle.
The need for in-depth cooperation among organizations not used to working closely together runs the risk of mutual recriminations among organisations with shared responsibilities or incompatible risk profiles, or both. That issue often arises in military ‘combined ops,’ for instance where the army’s losses will be reduced the closer troops are landed to a battle site from ships or aircraft, but the navy or air force’s losses will be reduced the further away the drop takes place. And there are obvious analogies in dealing with contagious disease, for example in the position of hospitals relative to other front line responders, or those working in social care relative to those in the health care sector.
The need for a flexible delivery structure responsive to changing ‘orders of the day’ from the centre while also feeding critical on-the-ground intelligence up the line for central decision makers to process also poses the risk of blame wars between front-line troops and those higher up the line. That is what happened in World War I, where blame for military setbacks and casualties was heaped on out-of-touch leaders back at base. A similar ‘lions led by donkeys’ blame risk can arise in any complex implementation structure, and it remains to be seen whether the current issue of mass testing capability will develop the sort of blame momentum that built up against the Asquith government barely six months into World War 1 over the shortage of ammunition to support the troops on the Western front. It is true that for the coronavirus there is an ‘all in it together’ element posed by the fact that the virus infects across the social spectrum, from the Royal Family and Cabinet ministers to the rest of us, so in this case even the generals are in the front line in a way. But there is still an inevitable divide between those who can work at home exposed to lesser risk of contagion or of direct expressions of public anger, and those who have no option but to work on the streets or in public places.
None of these challenges are trivial, and for every credit-claiming opportunity there is a corresponding blame risk for both politicians and others in the government machine to handle. The coronavirus blame game has barely started. There’s a long way to go, even – perhaps especially – after the current episode finally ends.