Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Blame and the State

The Daily Mail today led with the story "I blame Blair for my husband's death". Quite apart from the fact that this shows a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of the military (ie he was blown up by a booby-trapped bomb, which is a risk anywhere in armed combat), it is also part of a more worrying trend within British politics.

Blair has himself been noted for his "masochism strategy" in the pre-election and election campaign - that is, subjecting himself to Question Time-style audiences where every single aspect of his record is placed under scrutiny. This scrutiny is not a bad thing. But when the government record is criticised, it is the personage of Blair himself who gets the flak. This has amusing consequences - his floundering when he discovered that most GPs were now refusing to give appointments more than 48 hours in advance, for example (as Libby Purves writes today).

Yet for all his faults, Blair should not be held personally responsible for each individual failure of the NHS. He knows as well as we do that to take three years for psychiatric treatment to be given, for example, is too long (to raise one topic mentioned in his "meet-the-public" sessions). On the other hand, he can not, and should not, be forced into micro-management of every single scruple in the system that arises.

Blair must shoulder some of the blame for this, however. When he says "I'm a pretty straight sort of guy", and portrays the Labour Party as his personal crusade, with the personality politics that entails, then he is implicitly linking himself personally, and not his party or his government, with the success of government. And by extension he should be held responsible for the failures.

But it is this personal culpability which leads to the target culture which is so derided. If people are going to pin their failure to get an urgent appointment with a GP on Blair, then he is going to introduce anal targets inimical to the aim of creating really top quality public services. Unless we encourage people in the services themselves to shape up and take proper responsibility, and until the public direct their criticisms at the right pressure points, then we aren't going to see a big improvement in this regard.