News of Sharon Shoesmith’s six-figure payout caused an outbreak of spluttering rage yesterday. Once the Court of Appeal had ruled in her favour, though, a large payout was never in any doubt. Politicians on all sides are ranting about it but the judge has spoken. As I said at the time, politicians may bend to the will of tabloid editors but judges don’t and, whatever the PR considerations might have been at the time, they will punish those who break the law. Which is what the Secretary of State and Haringey Council did and that’s why they are having to pay out.
Darren Newman was quick off the mark with a response yesterday.
No-one emerges well from this. Shoesmith’s refusal to fall on her sword and accept responsibility is less than noble, but faced with no income what was she supposed to do? Haringey failed to stand up to a Secretary of State making a political announcement at the expense of an employee’s right to a fair hearing and then of course there is the Secretary of State himself. It would have cost very little to deal with Shoesmith in a fair way. He chose not to do so and what follows is basically his fault.
At the time, I said that the dismissal was probably illegal and so it proved. With all their expensive advisors, surely the Department of Education and Haringey must have known that too. But newspapers, with their own cynical agendas, were baying for blood and so hysteria trumped judgement. Ed Balls says Ms Shoesmith’s payoff “leaves a bad taste” but he is the man who could have, and should have, stopped things from getting this far.
One other thing surprised me about the reaction to this case though. From the start, most of those on the right attacked Sharon Shoesmith. To read the vitriolic comments you’d think she’d killed Peter Connelly herself. Conservatives, on the whole, lined up with the never again and the something-must-be-done tendencies. This isn’t very conservative, though. I would have expected at least some conservatives to dismiss the ‘never again’ pleas as liberal idealism or, worse, socialist utopianism. A hallmark of conservatism is a belief that society is imperfect and imperfectable. Or, at least, it used to be.
Chris Dillow made a similar observation after the riots two years ago.
There’s one response to the riots which, if not unheard, has not been as widespread as I’d have hoped. It’s a bit like this:
So too does another thing. Whatever you think are the causes of the riots – poverty, neo-liberal consumer culture, bad parenting or some sort of moral decline – these cannot be swiftly removed, except by large sacrifices of liberty or economic efficiency. It could be, then, that sporadic riots are less costly than the redistributive policies that would remove poverty and disaffection, or the statist interventions (assuming them to be feasible) that would remove bad parenting or reverse moral degradation.
Nor can we expect the police to prevent riots. Arising as they do from poorly understood and perhaps genuinely unpredictable emergent behaviour, riots cannot be foreseen in advance. So they will catch the police unawares. And given that the police force is a hierarchical monopoly, it is inevitable that it will be a deeply flawed institution, prone to big errors.
Riots, then, are just something we have to live with.
What I’ve just described is a strand of old-style conservatism – what David Willetts called the “melancholy tendency”. This, a position I suspect Oakeshott or Salisbury would at least sympathize with – says that some social evils are ineradicable because governments have bounded rationality in the face of deep-rooted complex problems. Some imperfections, then, must be tolerated.
Reasonable as it is, this view seems to me to have been under-expressed. Which just shows – again! – how old-style conservatism has been supplanted by a managerialism which pretends that society can be “mended” as if it were just a broken watch.
Once again, that melancholic Oakeshottian conservatism was not much in evidence after the Baby P case. I was expecting someone on the right to say that, in this imperfect world, there have always been people who kill their children and there probably always will be. Therefore, social work is essentially about damage limitation and that it would be impossible to prevent every child’s death. Furthermore, well-meaning attempts to make the system watertight would probably be counter productive and very expensive. Eventually, I got tired of waiting for someone on the right to say these things and ended up writing them myself.
Whether this shows that old-style conservatism is being supplanted, as Chris suggests, is an argument for another day. But in the right’s response to the Baby P case, the nuanced pragmatism of the traditional Tory seems to have been swamped by a visceral hated of the public sector. The chance to have a go at a public sector body and a senior public servant was too good to pass up, even if it meant letting Ed Balls off the hook. Given the reaction of most Conservatives, there is nothing to suggest they would have done anything different had they been in power.
There is a quote attributed to George Orwell about how rough men protect the rest of us from harm. Apparently, there is no evidence that he said it but I’m going to paraphrase it anyway. We sleep soundly because there are tough men and women who keep the worst in society from our doors. Police officers, social workers, care home staff, hospital A&E staff and charity workers keep the violent, the distressed and the poor away from our eyes. Most of the time, they do their job so well that the rest of us are unaware of the things they see and do. Occasionally, though, something goes wrong and a child is murdered, a criminal is left free to kill again and the horror of some people’s lives is laid bare. If we look for scapegoats and seek to punish people every time this happens, it destroys the morale of these men and women and makes their job that bit harder.
Of course, poor performance should be tackled in any job but the mitigating circumstances should always be taken into account before condemning someone as incompetent. And, for those who deal with the poorest and most distressed parts of our society, there are plenty of mitigating circumstances. The least we owe people who do these difficult jobs is a fair hearing. Even if the tabloids are piling on the pressure, there is no excuse for bypassing a fair process and flouting the law.