A friend contacted me the other day to ask why I was so ‘obsessed’ with institutional abuse. Had I been a victim of it myself?
Well, no, I haven’t. But her question gave me pause for thought: why do acts of abuse by people in positions of power make me so indignant? There is a legion of important causes that I could bollocks on about (and sometimes do), but I expend an arguably disproportionate quantity of my bile upon the corrupt practices of politicians, the authorities and the civil service.
It’s that last word that’s key, I think. All these people are public servants – my servants. They are sworn or contracted to serve the collective best interests of the people of the United Kingdom. If they abuse the power I have entrusted to them then I am complicit in their wrongdoing and have some responsibility to address it. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, put it well; “He who allows oppression, shares the crime,”
Of course, it’s all too easy for public servants to forget who they are serving, or even that they are serving at all. When people rub up against money or the law, some – not all – become corrupted by it. Politicians fiddle their expenses and award lucrative contracts to their friends and donors; members of the Metropolitan Police’s SDS squad deceived women into sexually exploitive relationships and provoked actions which they then prosecuted. Institutionally racist, homophobic and classist structures tacitly grant their employees the opportunity to express their prejudices through violence, coercion or neglect.
And power defends its own. When the very institutions that we have established to impose order and decent values upon our society become corrupted, it can be near impossible to impose the rule of law upon its dishonest agents. Because, like Judge Dredd, it is the law.
We all fear that the coterie of politicians who abused institutionalised children in the seventies and eighties will never be prosecuted (and MI5 have certainly done what they can to insure that they won’t). We suspect that the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and other victims of botched police operations won’t ever see policemen prosecuted for murder or even manslaughter because the institutions established to administer justice excuse their own agents from the rules they apply to the rest of us.
But we are not powerless. We have two mechanisms for addressing those wayward servants and restoring them to their duties and responsibilities. The first is the ballot box. It may seem remote from the copper stopping and searching disproportionate numbers of black kids, or the ATOS officer cancelling the disability living allowance of somebody dying of cancer, but our government and local authorities form the wellsprings from which stem the attitudes and behaviour of all public servants. If you aren’t registered or don’t use your vote, then they’re not your servants to command in the first place.
The second means by which we are able to exert some control over our servants is by challenging wrongdoing. Politicians are obliged to reply to correspondence. There are complaints procedures for pretty much every public office. The court of public opinion through press, media and social media can be very influential.
We have to believe that through our own actions each and every one of us can change the world for the better. The corrupt and dishonourable servants don’t want us to think that we can. As a better man than me once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”