Martin Luther King said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” At times of challenge and controversy, our current crop of political leaders have been cowering behind the skirts of public inquiries.
The public inquiry is now commonplace in contemporary British politics. We have had the Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the suicide of weapons of mass destruction expert David Kelly, the Shipman Inquiry into the issues surrounding the case of mass murderer Harold Shipman, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq conflict and the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
They are popular with the public because they appear to reflect an open and transparent society where those in authority are subject to public scrutiny.
They are popular with political leaders because they create the impression of “something being done” (without actually requiring them to do anything much at all).
Despite being time-consuming, expensive, undemocratic and unaccountable, these inquiries are becoming the standard response whenever an issue attracts a sufficiently high level of negative publicity. In fact, they have become a post-calamity ritual.
There are now increasingly loud calls for a public inquiry into the behaviour of Britain’s banks. They should be resisted. The ultimate measure of this generation is how we tackle problems like the Libor scandal. A public inquiry would be just another cop-out.