The Problem of Responsibility

Catchy title, I know. But a little cache of letters I found recently, dating from 1965, raised the question of political responsibility. And it was a jolt to realise how far we have come- gone- in terms of direct engagement between the governed and the government.

My father died, venerably at 95, a couple of months ago. In the 60’s he had a shortish stint as Liberal MP for Caithness and Sutherland, the most Northerly mainland constituency in Britain. In those days communication through post, road,rail and air was absolutely crucial to every bit of life. People lived in very remote areas, in tiny communities, absolutely reliant on public services to keep them going. And as we cleared out his papers we kept finding the kinds of letters that all MPs get, about the domestic, the local, the sometimes tiny conflicts that can make a community easy to live in, or not.

In the Post Office file I read a correspondence between the grocer and general merchants emporium, Messrs Peter Burr of  Tongue, Sutherland, my father, and the Postmaster General- at that time Anthony Wedgwood Been, later to be plain Tony Benn. The correspondence concerned the fate of a letter posted at Coldbackie Post Office on the morning of 5 November 1965, which was not received in Inverness until the morning of 8th November.

Gordon Burr, the shop’s manager noted that this timing seemed to have been the norm for the past couple of months. “Not so long ago this same letter would have been delivered on the afternoon of the 5th”. My father wrote to Mr Wedgwood Benn saying it was ‘intolerable’ that services were going backwards in an area which the Government had agreed needed development. Furthermore Mr Burr was ‘one of the mainstays of the areas and a very enterprising man’.

The Postmaster General investigated. He found that the morning collections from Coldbackie and Rhitongue post box were costly in relation to the number of letters collected( probably in single figures most of the time) so the collection had been withdrawn, leaving only the afternoon collection. However, he wrote,because of the remoteness of the area, the GPO would restore the morning service and he apologised to Mr Burr for the delay to his letters.( In a postscript he added that same day delivery to Inverness had not existed since before the War, indicating a difference of opinion with Mr Burr about how to measure ‘not so long ago’.)

I rang Royal Mail to check if the same procedure – the direct line from a citizen or voter, through the local MP, to the relevant Minister , would occur today. The Public Affairs department was wonderfully helpful. No it would not, they said. Royal Mail is a private company and all such queries and complaints would go to its Chief Executive Moya Green.

Now it may be that Royal Mail gives the same level of minute care to letters or parcels from the edge of the kingdom as Tony Benn did 50 years ag0. Its still a wonderful institution, all 500 years of it. But if we wonder why politics seems so irrelevant to so many people, so powerless in the face of global forces- then maybe the outsourcing of power by Parliament and by Government( regulators rule- another topic) plays a part in that.


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