Joe Bishop writes a brief history of Conservative blame avoidance and its limits during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Robert Weaver’s The Politics of Blame Avoidance, the American political theorist asserts that a politician’s primary motivation is to avoid blame for unpopular decisions.[i] Since David Cameron’s election in 2010, the Conservatives have exemplified this assertion. In the last decade, the party’s electoral appeal and legitimacy has been maintained through compelling narratives of blame avoidance. Yet, in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, we may just be witnessing the limits of this strategy.
Under David Cameron, blame avoidance was most prevalent when justifying the consequences of austerity. There was always something else other than the government’s own actions that was responsible for the consequences of cuts. Not only was the apparent need for austerity presented as the fault of the last Labour government’s overspending, but a more sinister form of blame avoidance also took hold: blaming of the ‘other’. Take Cameron’s 2013 Conference speech, where strain on the NHS was attributed to immigration – “If you are not entitled to our free National Health Service”, said Cameron, “you should pay for it”[ii]. It was the National Health Service after all, not the International Health Service.
When it came to the welfare state, it was the scroungers and shirkers who were to blame for the strain on the hard-working families. The overall fiscal strain on the country was blamed not on its root cause – austerity - but on immigrants, people on benefits, as well as the EU and striking public sector workers. Indeed, whilst a vast array of factors contributed to the Brexit vote, it shouldn’t really have come as any surprise to Cameron that after years of scapegoating immigration, Britain voted to leave the EU.
This form of Blame avoidance, pitting the ‘othered’ enemy against the vague notion of hard working, just about manging people, has since become a crucial component to Conservative rhetoric. When Theresa May and Boris Johnson struggled with Brexit in parliament and the courts, the MPs and judges standing in their way were characterised as ‘Enemies of the People’[iii]; liberal elites blocking the will of the majority.
Now though, the Conservatives are faced with the greatest political crisis of the century: the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has given Johnson some big mistakes to try and avoid the blame for, such as the failure to lock down the country a week earlier, or the catastrophe in care homes. Thus far, the government’s efforts at blame avoidance have fallen rather flat with the public and media. Therese Coffey’s attempt to blame the scientists was not well received. Johnson’s comments about care workers being responsible for the crisis in care homes was heavily criticised. His latest attempt to blame the opposition for opposing him have similarly fallen flat – the clue’s in the name.
Yet there is also another form of obfuscation creeping in to the government’s messaging: blaming the people themselves. Throughout the crisis, the government have individualised risk, presenting the spread of the virus as the product of personal responsibility. It is up to the people whether they ‘Stay Alert’. It is up to individuals should they choose to flock to Bournemouth beach, rather than being the product of the government’s own incoherent messaging. Matt Hancock attributed the recent local lockdowns in Northern towns and regions to the failure of the public to observe social distancing guidelines. Rishi Sunak has similarly presented our economic recovery as down to the people resuming their consumption of goods – ‘Eat out to Help out’.
As the decade has progressed then, the subjects of Conservative blame avoidance have been presented as in opposition to ‘ordinary people’. Yet now, through individualising responsibility during the pandemic, Johnson appears to be blaming this vague abstraction of the people themselves, alienating the very coalition his party claim to protect and represent. It’s as if their populist narrative of blame avoidance has turned in on itself.
After ten years in power then, is the Conservative Government finally struggling to assign blame for the product of its own failings? Only time will tell how embattled, if at all, the Conservatives and Johnson will emerge from this crisis. But this pandemic may just be exposing the limits to a party strategy that has succeeded in avoiding blame for its leaders’ mistakes for so many years. We may now be witnessing blame-avoidance when there’s no one left to blame.
Joe Bishop is currently an undergraduate studying Politics and International Relations at University. During his holidays he works for a Labour MP.
He tweets at @joe_bish0p
[i] Weaver, R.K. 1986. The Politics of Blame Avoidance. Journal of Public Policy 6(4): 371-98.