Times columnist Matthew Parris was amongst those who commented on the story of the council jobsworths who made a family take down their windbreak whilst eating their picnic on Clifton Downs in Bristol (see Putting petty officials back in their box). Like the rest of us, Parris fears the unchecked power of small people with authority unsupported by thought or brain. He wonders if the council officials have been disciplined.
I think this is unlikely for various reasons. Employment law is weighted heavily in favour of employees and is unlikely to appreciate the distinction between being an official and being officious. Very few public servants are actually dismissed, for incompetence or anything else. Besides, unless Bristol city council is very different from other local authorities, it is probable that the senior staff share the general bureaucrats’ view that theirs is the earth and everything in it. They may call us “customers” and describe themselves as “public servants”, but the reality is the rather paradoxical one that they have come to think of themselves as our masters. The contradictions inherent in this reach their apogee with signs erected by highways officers telling us to “think”. They don’t see themselves as others see them, which is probably as well for their self-esteem.
I suspect that Bristol’s apology was inspired by a quick-witted PR person. Bristol did not apologise because anyone thought that the officers’ heavy-handed conduct was wrong, but because someone rather brighter than the general run of council officers spotted a PR disaster looming. Another of Matthew Parris’s long-time battles is with people who cannot say “sorry”; it does not matter what inspired Bristol’s apology, they did at least make one.
Their apology was not accompanied by the usual empty assertions that “lessons have been learnt”. Perhaps the PR person was clever enough to realise that this phrase has been discredited with over-use by officials whose capacity to learn anything is pretty slim.