You probably guessed that the word careless
would attract my attention last week. We have witnessed an outbreak of it in the Conservative Party. Mr Sunak had carelessly omitted to wear his seat belt while being driven by his chauffeur, having previously been careless in ignoring the implications of his wife's non-domiciled status. Mr Johnson had carelessly omitted to declare his benefit, from someone he was appointing Chairman of the BBC, in obtaining a huge loan. And Mr Zahawi, while Chancellor of the Exchequer, had carelessly omitted to declare income and been forced to pay the Revenue a reported £4.8m, said to include a 30% fine.
You will have noticed that all those involved are multimillionaires, although Mr Johnson's finances fluctuate to the point that, at times, he seems to need help to maintain this status. There is more than a hint that some of this carelessness operates to their financial advantage, a happy coincidence. What is it about the word that allows it to be used as an excuse for what might appear to be egregious greed if not outright dishonesty? The seat belt story gives us a clue, but let's start with my dictionary (OED) and its definitions.
The intransitive use of the verb to care
means to feel concern or interest for or in something, and tellingly the OED tells me that it is often qualified by an adverb of degree or even an expletive – it offers an example of the latter from Dylan Thomas in 'I don't care a bugger whether you won't or will'. I can't find the source of the quotation but he was in the habit of using the expletive, including the inverted name of his village in Under Milk Wood
, Llareggub. His meaning is clear in that he is emotionally uninvolved in the consequences of the action intended. So, the adjective careless
, meaning unconcerned, thoughtless or negligent, clearly needs qualification. Unqualified, we cannot judge the importance of carelessness – how serious are the implications of this lack of care?
The primary reason for wearing a seat belt is to protect oneself and for long it was argued by libertarians that legislation to enforce their wearing was an infringement of individual rights. However, those with an interest in public health noted that many deaths and serious injuries of young people and the consequential grieving of their parents and extra burden on the NHS could be prevented by this simple piece of legislation, and so it proved. Thus, while it is easy to justify not wearing one by feeling that it is one's own business, in fact it is also negligent of the greater public good. Many would regard this as a minor misdemeanour. However, I have a personal anecdote that puts this in perspective.
Some years ago, my teenage son went for a ride with two friends in the car of one of their parents who had allowed him to take it after passing his driving test the previous day. I noted the boy in the back seat did not have his belt on (this was then allowable) and got him to belt up. An hour later, the police rang to tell me that my son was on his way to hospital after an accident. He had been in the front seat and when the car hit a stone wall at speed his belt prevented him going through the windscreen, but he was left with serious fractures. The others were only bruised, their belts probably saving their lives. My son spent some weeks in hospital and has long-term consequences. No-one in the three families involved regards not wearing seat belts as a minor misdemeanour.
This brings us to the role of the State in preventing accidental injury. All road traffic regulation is based on this, and the restriction of our liberty is generally supported, though in the case of speed limits not always observed in practice. The degree of public hazard is recognised generally by the punishment inflicted for disobedience when caught – fines and points on licences quantify this. The careful driver may go through life without incurring any penalty and it could be said that the number of points on a licence quantifies the degree of carelessness of a driver. It is recorded that Mr Sunak got away with a standard fine of £200, which for him must hardly be noticeable and easily thought of as a consequence of minor negligence.
I now wish to move to the broader implications of carelessness, the effect of it on others, and I have another anecdote. Many years ago, after leaving school, a cousin of mine went to work in a woollen mill. After a year of two, while cutting cloth on a guillotine, he manged to slice his hand off at the wrist and spent the rest of his life with a hook at the end of his arm. It was an act of carelessness, but foreseeable by his employer. Workplace regulations require employers to take care to protect workers, in this case by preventing the knife from operating until a guard is in place.
Accidents may well happen because of carelessness, but all humans are careless from time to time and the risk can be reduced by regulations and enforcement of them. These are among the regulations that libertarians in the Conservative Party are now reviewing in the name of sovereignty post-Brexit. The carelessness of his employer led to the consequences of my cousin's carelessness.
It could be said that we all have a moral responsibility to care for ourselves and for others. If I carelessly leave my boots by the door, either I or my wife may trip over them and break a hip. The same duty applies to an employer, a duty of care for employees, neglect of which can lead to punishment depending on the severity of the consequences. And, on an even greater scale, those who aspire to political office must assume a duty of care to the public whom they claim to serve. It is in this light that we should examine the other examples of carelessness with which I began this essay.
All three examples, Mr Sunak not noticing the implications of his wife's avoidance of tax, Mr Johnson's presumed attempt to avoid paying interest on a bank loan and accompanying desire to conceal this from the parliamentary authorities, and Mr Zahawi's attempt to conceal his carelessness in not paying the taxes that as Chancellor he expected the rest of us to pay are part of a common thread.
The attempts to conceal these financially advantageous arrangements suggest that they were somewhat reluctant to let us know, that is, at heart they were ashamed and that the episodes were not accidental but quite deliberate. One way or another, they were enriching themselves and in two cases potentially reducing the public purse for which they were collectively responsible. They were showing the behaviour of rich and powerful men who feel they are entitled to do so. In Mr Johnson's case, his behaviour also had consequences beyond the personal financial that had serious implications to the independence of the BBC.
All these cases speak to a habit of entitlement in this government. I have now lived through three eras of austerity. The first was the inevitable consequence of national indebtedness following six years of war and the austerity was shared by all save a few spivs but gave us the NHS.
The second came with Mrs Thatcher in a deliberate attempt to reduce public expenditure in the belief that the private sector was inevitably more efficient, and the consequences hit the poorest hardest while house prices rose to the benefit of the better off. The wealth gap between rich and poor grew remarkably. Its effects on the NHS and social care were alleviated by a period under the Labour Party and particularly Mr Brown's efforts as Chancellor and Prime Minister.
Then Mr Cameron reintroduced austerity, emasculated the public sector and ran us into Brexit, leaving an NHS and public health sector unprepared for the pandemic and its aftermath. And now we see the consequences, as the rich salt their money offshore or in obscure trusts, the poor starve and shiver, workers strike, and the Cabinet debates tax cuts for the wealthy.
These three senior politicians may well feel that their misdemeanours are trivial, venial and of no significance, but they are symptomatic of an attitude that our nation could well do without. Cicero's comment has become something of a cliché but is nonetheless true, that the first law of politics is the health or welfare of the people. I might add, not of the politicians and their cronies. It is hard to avoid concluding that the attitude of the Conservative Party to caring for the people is that of Dylan Thomas, expressed as the name of his village, Llareggub.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own