Why pen-pushers cause disasters – NOT our leaders

Why pen-pushers cause disasters – NOT our leaders: Obscure bureaucrats are often at fault for bad decisions blamed on top politicians, historian says

It would appear easy to blame populist leaders for disasters, whether natural or man-made.

But while human error certainly seems to play a part, it is often obscure bureaucrats who are actually at fault, says historian Niall Ferguson.

It is too easy to place all the blame on leaders, however many errors they have made, he told an audience at the Daily Mail-sponsored Chalke Valley History Festival yesterday.

He referred to the American space shuttle Challenger which blew up shortly after launch in January 1986. The first impulse of the Washington press corps was to blame it on the US President, claiming the launch was rushed so Ronald Reagan could include it in the State of the Nation address.

It is too easy to place all the blame on leaders, however many errors they have made, he told an audience at the Daily Mail-sponsored Chalke Valley History Festival (pictured) yesterday

Princess Diana’s brother, who has written a book about the 12th-century monarch, told the Chalke Valley History Festival yesterday the king was like a ‘Greek tragic hero’. Pictured: Reading Abbey, founded by King Henry I

But there was no substance to that, said Mr Ferguson, and ‘in reality Nasa engineers knew there was a one in 100 chance it would blow up.’ 

However, Nasa bureaucrats – including ‘an enigmatic figure [called] Mr Kingsbury’ had changed the risk into one in 100,000, a ‘significantly lower probability of disaster’.

Mr Ferguson said ‘there is a Mr Kingsbury in every disaster’ and it is not the people at the top that make the fatal errors but ‘someone in the middle management, in an obscure layer of bureaucracy’.

Henry I should be exhumed from a grave beneath a boarding school in Reading and given a proper burial at Westminster Abbey, Earl Spencer has suggested.

Princess Diana’s brother, who has written a book about the 12th-century monarch, told the Chalke Valley History Festival yesterday the king was like a ‘Greek tragic hero’.

Henry built the now-ruined Reading Abbey but is buried under a school extension. ‘I’m not sure he deserves that,’ said the Earl. 

‘It would be wonderful if he was reburied in Westminster Abbey or somewhere suitable.’

In another example, he said the big mystery of the coronavirus crisis is that the US and UK were said to be well prepared for a pandemic. 

But he referred to a ‘little known’ lecture in 2018 by Robert Kadleck, who was assistant secretary for preparing and response at the US department of health and human services.

Mr Ferguson said Kadleck had let it slip that he had ‘minimal confidence’ in the emergency pandemic plans and said if they were not beefed up ‘we are going to be SOL’ [‘s*** out of luck’]. 

The historian also pointed to tweets posted by Dominic Cummings about a ‘systemic failure’ in the UK’s public health system.

The festival, held in Broad Chalke, Wiltshire, is going ahead despite the delay to lockdown being lifted.

But Mr Ferguson’s talk, based on his book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, was pre-recorded and screened – because he was quarantining in Wales after flying in from the US. 

He said he was careful to stick to the rules, unlike his namesake Professor Neil Ferguson, who broke lockdown to meet his married lover.

Mr Ferguson added: ‘Even with the different spelling I still got an enormous amount of hate mail that was supposed to go to the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson who not only broke the rules that were his own idea but was the guy who wrote the paper that recommended hugely popular lockdowns that have now claimed me as their temporary victim.’

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