This week, millions of people in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Turkey paused to remember a tragedy of war.
It relates not to recent conflicts, such as the one in Iraq, but to a long-past battle fought in a place called Gallipoli.
During one of the bloodiest, and perhaps most futile, battles of World War 1, Allied forces struggled to wrest a small piece of land from the Turkish army.
Tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides lost their lives. The battle gave rise to the legend of the Anzacs, an acronym for members of the Australia and New Zealand army corps.
The immediate aftermath of the battle brought with it fierce recriminations and accusations of strategic incompetence on the part of the mostly British high command.
So great was the horror felt by soldiers and public alike, that blame passed right through the ranks to the very top. The British minister who took it on himself to claim most reponsibility was a young Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.
Not only did he resign his position, he left parliament and volunteered to work as a war correspondent, alongside the tommies in the muddy trenches which came to characterize the so-called ‘war to end all wars’.
It was an extraordinary step down for a man in this position at this time.
Yet it demonstrated not only a certain character on Churchill’s part, but his recognition of a principle which seems all too rarely observed in the hurly-burly of modern politics.
The principle is, of course, that of personal accountability. Churchill recognized, without being forced to do so, that he was a key part of the planning team which had committed errors of judgement which cost men their lives.
Contrast this the politics of this twenty-first century. In most developed countries, the ones that claim to have the most civilized and fair democracies, politics has become the art of spin and evasion. It owes more to the philosophy of Dicken’s Artful Dodger than that of political statesmanship.
Politicians announce policies which are formulated on the back of focus group surveys and high-powered computer models. Promises are made not so much on the basis of meeting genuine public needs as appealing to the tastes of the now infamous ‘swing’ voters.
‘Let’s find out what the voters in marginal seats want,’ say party planners, ‘then pitch our policies accordingly.’
Out on the election hustings, rather than face the wider public in any meaningful demonstration of accountability, politicians simply zap in and out of marginal seats. This is politics by evasion.
Once ensconced in government, whether at a local, regional or national level, politicians continue to lead the same way. When mistakes are made, it is usually someone else’s fault.
Every effort is made to deflect responsibility from the individual at the top who should, in a truly democratic system, accept ultimate responsibility.
On the rare occasion that we see a senior government figure tender his or her resignation, the event is usually accompanied by a letter which is prefaced by something like this: ‘Whilst I do not believe that I have done anything wrong…’ or, ‘Whilst I have only ever acted in the interests of the people…’
Even letters owning up to failure are laced with excuses and an effort to avoid giving account.
Accountability is a rare commodity these days – and not just in politics.
Recent business scandals have seen corporate heads held to legal account for gross corporate failures and misuse of shareholders’ funds.
In many cases they have tried to evade responsibility, claiming ignorance of the situation which led to disaster.
Evasion always spells the end of constructive engagement with a problem; it leads us down a cyclic path where one problem leads to another. With each excuse we dig a deeper hole for ourselves.
Solving a problem begins with accepting whatever responsibility we can for changing it.
Many psychiatrists have long argued that a failure to accept personal responsibility for one’s life is a sure road to depression.
We need to recreate a culture of accountability at every level of society. We need to look closely at our own private lives first and determine to accept responsibility for the consequences of our own choices.
If I am merely a victim of the fates, then my decisions do not count. If my decisions mean nothing, I cannot change anything in my life. I am a sure candidate for despair.
Seen in this light, personal accountability is liberating. We should insist on accountability in our political and business leaders, and we should demonstrate it closer to home.
If enough of us form the habit, who knows, we may actually begin to turn from a culture of evasion to a culture of engagement and constructive action.