Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West. She is the Spectator’s backbencher of the year.
She was 92. She’d had a good innings. She was impossibly frail; her six-stone frame was armchair- bound and by her own heart-rending proclamations, was not enjoying living. But it’s still a shock when someone who has been seminal to your life ceases to exist. She died last week.
Annie O’Leary, a devout Catholic, born in Ireland in June 1921, intercepted me one day in March 2004 as I was on my way to the first of what I hoped would be a series of weekly meetings that would determine my career. A hunched figure in a shabby coat and hat, hobbling precariously along the kerb, she flailed her stick and fixed me with a piercing eye; “maam, maam, will ya help me get ta church, maaam!” She wailed in a thick Irish accent. There was not much saying no to that. She clutched my hand with a vice-grip, and I never, ever, made any of those career-defining meetings again.
What happened next became a routine that lasted almost ten years. I helped her to church, managed her collection of an array of 2p coins, then took her back to her little flat. The brown lino curled at the edges, it was stiflingly stuffy and newcomers would remark on the smell. Her only living relation was a hard-pressed niece in Ireland. When I met Annie, her care package was dubious; she was already too weak to pick up the phone, make a cup of tea, or cut her fingernails, and was in a state of constant fear about her carers – over whom there was always some kind of drama.
Why does any of this matter? Because what this woman taught me was so valuable; not only about the Irish Catholicism of her generation, but what real vulnerability means. “Vulnerable Person” has become an ubiquitous phrase, used even to include rampantly anti-social tenants who terrorise their neighbours with drug habits and unruly dogs. “Vulnerable” has become a term whereby we can absolve someone from personal responsibility, often cruelly to the detriment of those whom the users of the term are attempting to help. By contrast, Annie had a strong sense of her own personal responsibility, but was really vulnerable; a constant victim-in-waiting. I was acutely conscious that anyone alone with her could have taken her money, abused her, and she could have done absolutely nothing about it, like a small child. There is a terrible vertigo of responsibility in witnessing that naked vulnerability, especially in a friend.
My friendship with Annie has driven a particular intolerance of the false-victimhood, so quickly assumed by those responsible for caring for the truly vulnerable, who have been found severely wanting in their duties. It is why the spectacle of Sharon Shoesmith, demanding that she be cast as the poor victim of political and press scrutiny in the appalling Baby P case is, so distasteful.
But grabbing the role of the victim is a key part of the choreography in the Dance of Denial. After bending the evidence to “re-present” the apparently incriminating facts, the next stage is “Victim”.
We have seen it played large at the Dispatch Box when Andy Burnham has been faced with not “smears”, as Burnham claims, – but “facts”, over Labour’s covering up dangerous care in our NHS – when Labour should have reacted to alarms raised by people such as Sir Brian Jarman with the alacrity of well-drilled pupils to the school fire-bell. Eyes go wide with wounded incredulity that anyone should be cruel enough to suggest that they are at fault.
We have seen it from the offended gaze of Sir David Nicholson, in front of Select Committees, as sudden labrador eyes ask the panel how he could possibly be expected to know or remember anything that went on under his leadership of the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority, or as Chief Executive of the NHS, now of NHS England. But there’s a big difference between these stealing the mantle of victimhood and the real victims left without a voice, without an income, (like many whistle-blowers), and even without their life.
When things get more difficult, the false-victims turn to the third stage of the dance: self-righteous attack. We have seen it with Burnham who retaliates aggressively against the Conservatives, distracting eyes from the truth by a snarling onslaught about a so-called “privatisation process” that his own Labour Party started. We see it with Sir David Nicholson, as he bullishly accuses Select Committee members who ask him probing questions of being ‘legalistic’.
But The Dance of Denial is infuriatingly hard to wrong-foot. Being such an aggressive ‘victim’ is a powerful tool, presenting those telling the truth as naive, vindictive, or just plain lunatic. This is the challenge that whistle-blowers faced in revealing the truth of what has been going on in our NHS, Social Services and beyond – Julie Bailey, Gary Walker, James Titcombe, Kay Sheldon, David Drew, Amanda Pollard, – the list goes on.
It becomes particularly difficult as the knowledge of injustice boils angrily. But blurting out the facts (which are often extreme) can play to the false victim’s portrayal of those who threaten to uncover their misdemeanours as mistaken and emotional. Most whistle-blowers have been accused of being a little unstable. Too often, this portrayal, more convenient to the institution or establishment, has been believed.
Earlier this month, I was humbled to receive the Spectator Backbencher of the Year award. I gratuitously slip this in not only because I am unedifyingly chuffed about it. I mention it because above all it was a tangible recognition that those whistleblowers, for whom I was able to be an occasional mouthpiece, are not fringe lunatics. They are anchors of the truth, standing up for those who, like my friend Miss O’Leary, really merit – or merited – the term ‘vulnerable’.