SARAH SANDS: From the Post Office to the Royals, the pillars are crumbling
It would once have seemed unimaginable that one of this country’s great institutions, the Post Office, could behave so cruelly and arrogantly. Yet the truth has finally come to light, shattering the public’s faith in the State-run organisation.
Last week witnessed what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in recent history. Thirty-nine sub-postmasters and mistresses learnt from the Court of Appeal that judges had overturned convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting that dated back more than a decade.
Three who had been falsely accused had since died, shamed and humiliated, while others suffered prison sentences, divorce or bankruptcy.
All because the Post Office had chosen to believe flawed evidence from the now-discredited computer system it had installed in branches.
It would once have seemed unimaginable the Post Office could behave so cruelly and arrogantly
When these respectable folk at the heart of their communities tried to explain that there was something wrong with the computers, institutions closed rank against them. The powerful prevailed over the powerless.
Not only did the Post Office – a bedrock of daily life that dates back to 1660 – pursue its callous course but the legal system, until Friday’s Appeal Court decision, showed justice to be deaf rather than blind. Nobody listened to the innocent victims.
At least now, humanity as well as justice is restored.
Meanwhile, there is a worrying sense that this country is witnessing the tottering of many other traditional pillars that have kept the nation stable over generations.
The fact is that recent months have been very bad for many of our institutions. The Government is mired in unedifying claims about access to power.
We have a Prime Minister careless of rules, with the self-confessed anarchist Dominic Cummings trying to hold him to account. A previous incumbent of No 10, David Cameron, is embroiled in allegations of sleaze.
Although the ceremonial dignity of Prince Philip’s funeral was a source of national pride, the Monarchy remains damaged by the scurrilous – and unproven – charges laid against it from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Harry and Meghan.
Prince Harry talks of his unwavering support for the Queen – despite he and his wife undermining the institution and the values that she represents. Then there are the legal issues concerning Prince Andrew’s relationship with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
Although Prince Philip’s funeral was a source of national pride, the Monarchy remains damaged by the charges laid against it from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Harry and Meghan
Elsewhere, institutional authority is fracturing.
The rule of law was subverted by a jury on Friday, acquitting six eco-warriors of vandalising Shell’s London headquarters despite the judge declaring they had no legal defence.
Even those at the top of national sport disgraced themselves as a group of greedy, multi-billionaire football club owners secretly plotted to betray tradition and fans’ interests by forming their own breakaway league while sharing a £2.8 billion bounty.
The clubs’ foreign owners seemed to be taken by surprise when they read media coverage of what fans thought about them.
‘We clearly misjudged how this deal would be viewed by the wider football community,’ said J.P. Morgan, the bank that had planned to finance the new deal.
There may not have been a great citizens’ revolt in protest against the wayward behaviour of other traditional pillars of society, but there have been myriad other examples of the national masonry crumbling.
We see the Civil Service accused of complicity in either the cover-up of Government sleaze, or, conversely, adding to the feeding frenzy over such allegations. Whitehall officials have been forced to produce personal texts that they would otherwise have happily kept private. Some are merely embarrassing, but others are hugely revealing of deeper issues and raise important questions.
Government spokesmen protest that ‘the system works’ because David Cameron never managed to convince his Tory successors in government or the Bank of England to embrace the mysterious company Greensill, which he represented and would have been in line for a multi-million-pound payout if he had succeeded.
It was also only after pressure that the Treasury released details of communications between senior officials and Greensill which revealed that former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, too, had been involved in putting the company in touch with Treasury officials.
Those at the top of national sport disgraced themselves as a group of greedy, multi-billionaire football club owners secretly plotted to betray tradition and fans’ interests
Thanks to the system of Freedom of Information requests and the digging of journalists, we now see that a cultish faith in Greensill swept through the Civil Service.
Meanwhile, that other great national foundation stone, the Church of England, is weakened, having closed the doors of places of worship during the pandemic and been far more vocal about identity politics than on the teachings of Christ.
This, of course, follows on from the ideological revolution sweeping through our universities.
They no longer seem to see themselves as crucibles of academic excellence and freedom. Instead, they indulge in ‘safe spaces’ where there is a policy of ‘no-platforming’ for people with views that might be too challenging and where there is an increasingly oppressive rule of ‘woke’ doctrines.
Where was the spirit of Voltaire last week when Jesus College, Cambridge, threatened students with eviction if they did not remove posters – including Vote Labour stickers and rainbow ‘Pride’ flags – from their windows?
Who believes now in the proud tradition of free speech and the brave proclamation: ‘I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
We need stable, morally confident institutions in democracies. Ours are looking weakened, either by rotten leadership or by loss of trust. These failings may be an unfortunate result of the pandemic.
Let’s hope so and that as the effects of Covid begin to subside, our leaders can start to concentrate again on what else is important to Britain’s fabric.
Undoubtedly, the media have a vital role to play. Already they have questioned the Government’s response to the pandemic every step of the way, not least in calling out an approach that threatened to keep us in lockdown long after most of the country is vaccinated.
The media are accused of having all the questions and none of the answers, but without questions, the powerful become complacent or worse. So forgive me if I feel a surging pride in the robustness of one great institution that has seen a resurgence in the last year.
We have a Prime Minister careless of rules, with the self-confessed anarchist Dominic Cummings trying to hold him to account
Economically hammered by Facebook and Google, often rebuked by the so-called ‘great and the good’, the Press has broken free of attempts to rein it in. Public institutions must be tested and it is the Press’s duty to do so.
Of course journalists are an irritant, but they are also the friends of democracy.
I am currently reading Going With The Boys, a new book by Judith Mackrell on the role of female correspondents during the Second World War.
These women were held back by protocol and prejudice, and became all the more reckless and ingenious. The great Clare Hollingworth commandeered a consular car to get her into Germany from Poland, where she witnessed the massing of German tanks and reported that war had started – the scoop of the century.
These women journalists unremittingly questioned the British authorities. They questioned the French authorities. And, by God, they questioned Germans when they reached the concentration camps at the end of the war and discovered the horrors there.
The American journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote: ‘It took 12 years to open the gates of Dachau. We were blind and unbelieving and slow.’
Chilling proof that democracies collapse when unchallenged.
For all its current problems, Britain has one of the strongest democracies in the world. It will endure by doing the right thing – and nothing encourages the right thing more than vigilance.
As newspapers and BBC Radio proved with their indefatigable support for the wronged Post Office staff, the hounds are also our guardians.