Forty years ago, as a trainee journalist, I learned about the constitutional convention of ministerial responsibility – the idea that ministers accept responsibility for the actions of their departments, and resign when things go seriously wrong, even if they were not personally at fault.
In April 1982 I saw a memorable example of that convention in action. Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary, resigned because Margaret Thatcher’s government had failed to foresee Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands. So did two of his junior ministers, Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce.
They were not the guilty men, but their resignations served a purpose. They were acts of contrition. They forestalled bitter recriminations. They enabled the government to move on, and the country to unite behind the dispatch of the task force that recaptured the Falklands and restored Britain’s honour.
Last week we witnessed a similar national humiliation. Neither the US or British governments, the two biggest contributors to the Nato-led multinational force in Afghanistan, foresaw that the abrupt withdrawal of their troops from that country would lead within days to the collapse of the Afghan army, the fall of the Afghan government and a spectacular victory for the Islamofacists of the Taliban whom we had been fighting for 20 bloody and costly years.
In Boris Johnson’s defence, Britain had little choice but to pull out once Joe Biden had decided to do so. But to withdraw with such unseemly haste, with scarcely a token show of opposition to Biden’s disastrous decision, and with so little planning or thought about what would ensue, was unforgivable. In 1990 Thatcher told George HW Bush not to go “wobbly” after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, but there was no prime ministerial strengthening of the presidential backbone this time. We were complicit.
For Britain this is a calamity far greater than the temporary loss of the Falklands. By cutting and running we, like the US, have betrayed not only the thousands of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan over the past two decades, but the tens of thousands of Afghans, and their families, who are now in mortal danger because they worked for us, the millions of Afghan women who face a terrifying future under misogynist rule, and an entire country whom we have abandoned to one of the world’s most brutal and fanatical religious movements. In response, Priti Patel has begrudgingly and belatedly offered a lamentably inadequate refugee programme.
All Johnson’s flag-waving jingoism and bragging about “world-beating” Britain has been exposed for the vacuous nonsense it is. Our trustworthiness and credibility, already undermined by our willful disregard of international law, is now in tatters. Our aspiration to be “Global Britain”, already weakened by our departure from the European Union and foreign aid cuts, is shot to pieces. Our claim to champion democracy and human rights, already challenged by our failure to protect Hong Kong from China’s depredations, has been further damaged.
Five months after the government’s Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy asserted the primacy of the “special relationship”, and scarcely two months after the Prime Minister persuaded Biden to sign a gimmicky new “Atlantic Charter” at the G7 summit in Cornwall, the folly of leaving the EU and putting all our proverbial eggs in the US basket is now plain for all to see. Biden cares little about us. Although British troops supported their US counterparts in Afghanistan for two decades, the President conspicuously failed to consult Johnson on the timing and logistics of the final US pull-out, or even to take his calls for nearly two days.
What authority – moral or otherwise – will Johnson now bring to bear as he seeks to persuade the world to tackle the existential threat of climate change at the UN summit in Glasgow this November, or in any other international forum? Absolutely none.
And who is taking the blame for what Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, rightly describes as “the biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez”? Absolutely nobody.
Certainly not our perfidious, mock-Churchillian Prime Minister, who could scarcely avoid a grilling in parliament but has – as yet – declined to follow Biden’s example by giving a press conference or proper television interview on the seismic developments of the past week.
And certainly not Dominic Raab, who occupies the post Carrington once held. The Foreign Secretary had to be dragged back to London from the beaches of Crete after failing to anticipate the speed of the Taliban’s advance, or to intercede with his Afghan counterpart on behalf of Afghan interpreters at grave risk of Taliban reprisals. Moreover, he prematurely withdrew most Foreign Office officials who might have assisted those desperate Afghan allies of the West who were seeking to escape. He is guilty not only of gross misjudgement, but of a dereliction of duty.
Nobody has taken responsibility for our defeat in Afghanistan – neither the Prime Minister, nor the Foreign Secretary, nor anyone else in the upper echelons of this government. With the exception of the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, a former soldier who had the decency to choke up as he admitted that “some people won’t get back”, nobody has apologised or expressed contrition for the debacle. Nobody has resigned. Nobody has been sacked. No public inquiry has yet been ordered.
We have instead been treated to the usual evasions and obfuscations, flannel and sophistry, blame-shifting briefing wars and fatuous photo ops – this time of Raab furiously working the phones far too late to make the slightest difference.
This total lack of accountability should not be a surprise. Johnson failed to sack Matt Hancock for breaking his own Covid lockdown rules by having an affair with an aide, or Priti Patel for bullying her civil servants, or Gavin Williamson for screwing up Britain’s pandemic examinations system. He surrounds himself with mediocrities, probably because they do not threaten him. He prizes loyalty far above ability, integrity or experience.
Lord Carrington was a good man, even a great one. He was honourable and principled. Were he still alive, he would surely be disgusted by this Conservative government and our charlatan Prime Minister. Britain is now a country led by political and moral pygmies, by weak, cowardly and incompetent featherweights all pumped up by the trappings of high office, but bereft of any sense of decency, dignity or shame.