What ‘full responsibility’ must actually mean

Yesterday in parliament we watch, once again, as the Prime Minister used words to mean something entirely different to their normal usage. He told us, again and again, how there were failures of leadership at Number 10. He told us, again and again, how he was full of remorse and was in no way seeking to mitigate any of what went on. He told us, again and again, that he took full responsibility. All terms that Sue Gray utilised in her report on the breaking of lockdown rules – rules the Prime Minister himself imposed on everyone else – but that the government blithely ignored.

The Prime Minister inisisted he was “humbled” and had “learnt a lesson”. He went as far as to say that he took “full responsibility for everything that took place on my watch”. And then he proceeded to tell everyone that he was vindicated in everything he said previously, denied that he had lied about anything, and that he would like to draw a line under matters and get on with the business of government.

The Conservative peer, and Times columnist, Danny Finkelstein sums up the whole thing well here:

When the party scandal began, Tory MPs said they would need to wait for the Sue Gray report before delivering a verdict on what had happened. And now we have it.

Did members of staff hold multiple events which broke the rules? Yes. Did they know they were breaking the rules? Yes. Were these events planned in advance? Yes. Did the prime minister attend several of them? Yes. Would it have been obvious to him that these events broke the rules? Yes.

And did Gray believe that he and Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, were responsible for the culture that allowed this? Yes. Unless she means someone else when she talks about “the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official”.

So when the MPs implied they would act once the facts were known, what else were they expecting? How much worse could it have been.

This report is only not shocking if one allows familiarity with the events to produce acceptance. I absolutely refuse to do that.

The rules to prevent Covid spread were designed to stop people dying. To set the rules and then break them is completely unacceptable. I learnt little from this report I didn’t know. But that is what makes it so bad.

The reality is that “taking responsibility” does not mean carrying on as normal. It means wearing the consequences of that which you have presided over. In this case, breaking the very rules that you and your government have set. It means, as my friend outlines here, accepting the reality of what you have imposed on others and not worn yourself:

Taking full responsibility cannot mean that nothing happens. It cannot simply be a form of words that means the whole thing may pass away, never to be mentioned again. With responsibility surely comes consequences for one’s actions. Otherwise, what sort of responsibility are we taking at all.

Which should cause us all to reflect on the reality of how we respond when we are caught in transgression of our own. I suspect many of us, much like the Prime Minister, are quick to say that we ‘acknowledge our sin’ and ‘take full responsibility’ for it. But what we often mean is that we are going to carry on regardless. Jesus says it is wrong, but I take full responsibility, and that is that. The end.

That, of course, is not to say that we believe in penance. But we can be a little quick to jump from ‘full responsibility’ to ‘right, back to work’. I mean, Zacchaeus didn’t just go, ‘sorry about that – anyway, back to tax collecting!’ He repented and sought to put right what had been put wrong. It is not that there is no forgiveness available. Nor is it that Jesus needs us to do something for him before he will restore us. But our repentance has to be genuine. And all too often, we ‘take full responsibility’ but, much like the Prime Minister, there is little to suggest there is very much genuine about it at all.

Genuine repentance will show itself. A repentant person will put themselves in a position where they are seeking not to sin again. They will wear the consequences of their sin, knowing that they are what they deserve. There will be more than mere words of sorrow, but there will be some godly action on their part to put matters right. Where things cannot be put right, there will be a genuine effort to change.

We would do well to note the Prime Minister’s view of responsibility and ensure that, when we sin, our repentance bears the marks of genuineness that his ‘full responsibility’ seems to lack.