Accepting Responsibility or Wriggling Out of It?

Following the defeat of his attempt to secure the House of Commons’ agreement to his Brexit deal, Mr Johnson sent three letters to the European Union: an unsigned photocopy of the request for a delay as outlined by the Benn Act; an explanatory note from the U.K.s ambassador to the E.U.; and a personal, signed, letter saying why he does not want a delay. Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the failure to sign the first letter struck me as childish — a moment of shame for all of us in the U.K. as the Prime Minister made it plain that he refused to accept responsibility for what he was obliged by law to do. There have been many similar instances during the past few years of prominent people — not just politicians — wriggling out of responsibility. At one level, their actions can be dismissed as mere posturing. At another, I think they suggest something much more troubling: unwillingness to accept that there are limits on our personal freedom by virtue of the obligations we have assumed. ‘Falling on one’s sword’ may sound a quaint idea to some, but behind it lies a long tradition of accepting responsibility, of being someone on whom others can rely — and that is the crux. Shrugging off responsibility makes one unreliable.

How often do we hear people caught up in the scandals of the moment declare they they have done nothing wrong? They cling to their positions even after it has become clear that they have failed to act when they should or have been complicit in dubious transactions. One aspect of the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that has rocked the trust of many has been the failure of some bishops to accept responsibility for what has happened in their dioceses. But, lest we think this shrugging off of responsibility is something that affects others not us, let’s pause a moment and examine our own conscience. When did we last drive too fast, putting others at risk, and justified ourselves to ourselves with the thought that nothing untoward was likely to happen; when did we turn away when someone needed our help because we were busy and preoccupied with our own needs or wishes; when did we ignore the beggar in the street on the grounds that she was a drug-abuser and any money we gave would have been used to feed a destructive addiction; when did we make a promise we didn’t keep or fulfilled only minimally and legalistically? In other words, just how reliable are we? Always, or only when it suits us? It is no accident that St Benedict describes the watchful brother who is conscious of his duty to God and others as a utilis frater, a reliable brother, one on whom we — and He — can depend. (cf RB 7.18). Something for us all to ponder, I would suggest.


15 thoughts on “Accepting Responsibility or Wriggling Out of It?”

  1. A hardest thing to do, I remember from my working life, is to always keep a watch on doing the tasks that we don’t want to it. It’s easy to excel at tasks we want to do. And now it’s a factor in these Brexit negotiations that the country and parliament are almost deadlocked at 50:50 on this issue. How does the UK government take responsibility for that I wonder. But it must consider it.

    In helping others, maybe today I will think about things I could do that I might not like to do.

    • Corporate responsibility is always a difficult area, especially when what one has to do is personally distasteful; but we do have choices. Back in the Dark Ages, when I was in banking, there was a kind of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that if one were not prepared to accept responsibility for something, one should resign.

  2. Far from being childish, Prime Minister Johnson was being politically and personally honest in not signing the European Withdrawal (No2) Act aka the Surrender Act.

    • I agree it was quite an astute way of dealing with the situation given, knowing well the mood in Brussels and the abandonment of duty to fulfill promises amongst the Opposition . Maybe, as for certain we will all tend to disagree on politics its best to just pray rather than comment though.

      • I’ve always used current examples as illustrations for my blog posts (see, for example, my reference to the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in paragraph two of this post) but I do wonder whether I should sometimes argue further or simply let things go when the question at issue is not the main point I wish to make. Courteous debate is one of the things I really appreciate about contributors to this blog and am profoundly grateful for the thoughtful comments so many take the trouble to make.

  3. When I was working outside the home, I would reach a good level of responsibility–and then I’d stay there.I didn’t lack ambition, but the job was just one ambition; I was a wife, a mother, a citizen, not just a mortgage-holder.I worked as hard as I could, and that was enough for me. I’ve been off the job for 25 years now. I have nothing to do and all day to do it. I’m still looking for what I’m supposed to do next. Way will open…abut it’s taking its own sweet time.

  4. A salutary reminder that integrity in little things is just as important as integrity in big issues. Particularly in matters where one’s instinct is to turn away and hope someone else will step in and relieve us of an unwanted burden.

  5. Yep! Exactly E: sister, Catherine! I’m well feed, housed, money is no ploblem, but, my heritage is Christian ( both sides of my parents family’s, have been Catholics, back to beginning of time , to me ,( I turned 60 years old, this year!) I have a responsibility and calling to honour this! Blessings, in gods grace , I get it!

  6. Personal integrity … what a challenge! Thank you for your blog and for the various comments and for your replies. All intellectually and morally stimulating after a ‘hard day’s work’…

  7. I have to say I struggled with the unsigned letter . I realise that your blog was about far more than this and it was used as an illustration about the acceptance or otherwise of responsibility .
    Why did I struggle with the letter , because he promised that he would not write to seek an extension , he was overruled granted some would say by a rapidly debated amendment allowed by a speaker whose own actions are now to be scrutinised by a committee.
    How was he to respond ? Might there be an argument for personal conviction about not breaking a promise but still complying with the law ,It gave me much food for thought while I realised that he holds high office and that probably means personal convictions have to be relinquished .I remain uneasy .
    To the rest of your blog , I agree , we wriggle and shirk in all manner of ways and it is challenging to be confronted with this and ask for forgiveness Grace and mercy to be more like Jesus who set such a wonderful unswerving , unshrinking example all the way to the cross !

    • I think what I would say would be this: the Benn Act required Mr Johnson to write to the E.U. asking for an extension. That is to say, it was a legally-binding obligation on him as Prime Minister. Mr Johnson was free to add a second letter, saying he didn’t want an extension, which is what he did; but not to sign the first struck me as being contemptuous of both the law and the recipients of the letter. ‘Be you never so high yet the law is above you’ as Lord Denning was wont to remark. If Mr Johnson did not wish to obey the law, he had the option of resigning. We may debate whether the law was/is a good law or not, but I think it sets a dangerous precedent to treat it with contempt. Mr Johnson has said many contradictory things in the past so I am not sure how much we should consider his statement about not seeking an extension as a promise or a posture. I certainly, and genuinely, hope he won’t be dying in a ditch!

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