The British Post Office Scandal and the Future of Democracy

All Political Parties Come Out Badly

The Post Office in Corsham, England. (Public domain .)

The seismic power that drives an earthquake takes a while to build; and the longer it builds, the bigger the ultimate jolt. Such is the logic behind the political earthquake that has just struck the UK.

At the epicenter is the Post Office and its spectacularly dysfunctional  IT system. To cut a long story short, the Post Office, hitherto a seemingly blameless symbol of British village life, stands accused of jailing countless branch managers on evidence that it has known, or at least should have known, resulted from a pernicious computer bug. For Americans, a wider issue here is that the scandal illustrates in high relief how ungovernable our Western democracies seem to be becoming. This poses a question:  is the world becoming too complicated for traditional democracy–with its emphasis on accountability and a prominent role for a strong, well-financed press–to work?

Key members of the British establishment have clearly long been concerned about the Post Office but any progress they have made has been remarkably slow.  The scandal illustrates in particularly high relief a dearth of intelligent accountability in  Western societies these days.

What in the end made the difference in the Post Office scandal was not a carefully argued briefing paper but rather a highly disturbing docudrama. Aired on British television in the first week of January,  it became an overnight sensation. Suddenly after more than two decades as a non-issue the Post Office was propelled to the top of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s agenda.

The trouble is that not every important issue has made-for-television potential.  In fact, until recently the  Post Office’s effort to avoid serious culpability had proved quite successful. This was illustrated, for instance, in the fact that when then Post Office chief executive  Paula Vennells stepped down in 2019, she was not only awarded a high British honor (a CBE), by Prime Minister Theresa May, but she was appointed a non-executive board member in the British Cabinet office.  It is a fair guess that Theresa May, like most of the rest of the establishment in London, had never taken a serious look at the Post Office. Still less had she ever sized up Vennells.

Most of the evidence has been in plain view for more than a decade and has been documented by investigative journalists like Nick Wallis and Karl Flinders. Meanwhile, politicians such as James Arbuthnot and Kevan Jones raised the matter in Westminster.

The evidence is mainly circumstantial. But there is plenty of it and it is persuasive. A key point is that the Post Office repeatedly lied in answering the accused branch managers’ questions.  The most obvious example was the matter of how many other branch managers had queried the computer’s reliability. The Post Office’s consistent answer was that there had been no others.  In fact, it later became apparent that there had been innumerable doubts about the computer’s reliability. The Post Office’s lies were necessitated by a need to forestall the victims from making common cause in establishing the truth.

Here are some other points that support the branch managers’  case:

1. In the old days of paper records, the Post Office never seemed to have had any special problems with fraud and embezzlement.  Why would the managers’ character suddenly undergo such a turn for the worse in the electronic era?

2. The Post Office’s version implied an implausible coincidence: the branch managers’ character supposedly underwent a remarkable degradation, just as the organization was making the transition from paper records to digital ones. If the branch managers had been generally more honest than average in the paper records era,  why would they drop to lower-than-average honesty in the electronic era? The Post Office had no answer.

3. Despite extensive efforts to trace what happened to the missing money, the Post Office has never been able to trace the money that was supposedly embezzled.  Had the branch managers really trousered the money, they would have had great difficulty hiding the trail from capable investigators.

3. The Post Office’s top management operated a startling double standard in mapping blame. While it maintained a tough-as-nails approach in the case of small branches, it adopted an entirely lenient approach in the case of so-called Crown Post Offices. These latter are much larger establishments and are owned 100 percent by the Post Office company. By contrast, the small branches where the rules were applied strictly were franchised operations run by independent contractors.

In looking to the future, an important consideration is that all three major British political parties come out of this badly. This may, however, be a  blessing in disguise because the parties may be more inclined to make common cause in designing a new system for the future.

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