Lesley Riddoch: Time to stop seeing both sides of the argument

IF A country had a star sign, Britain would be an infuriating Libran. Pathologically unable to hear just one side of the argument, the tolerant (or contrarian) Brit starts to sympathise with the minority view even when the case for the prosecution seems complete.

Take Copenhagen. Just as the developed world is ready to tackle global warming, climate change deniers are attracting considerable public support. Just as bankers are hit with Alistair Darling's tax on cash bonuses, opinion columns suggest the men and women of the City are merely scapegoats for our shared national obsession with cash. And despite the presence of a bell tower in the latest set of MPs expenses, papers are starting to spotlight the plight of non-free-loading MPs, some of whom will stand down next year, demoralised and depressed at their collective and undeserved fall from grace.

Tiger Woods stands accused of letting down a generation of golfers, black sportsmen and loyal, stay-at-home wives. But despite mocking headlines, there's very little real anger on display. Perhaps that's because this morose David Gest lookalike never looked particularly happy – even when he had a different girl on his arm (and elsewhere) every night. Perhaps Woods's doleful demeanour is mediating the tidal fury that might otherwise have been directed towards a calculating business tycoon and shameless lothario.

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Or perhaps when push comes to shove, we know that everyone struggles with greed, vanity, uncertainty and paranoia. If those without guilt must cast the first stone, then who apart from an insufferable prig is ready to preside in trial by media or the public court of bad behaviour?

Despite the sweeping generalisations, we know there are modest MPs, innocent bankers, and days when Tiger Woods went home to his wife. And that knowledge is blinding us to a simple fact. To err is human, to allow errant human behaviour to become the norm is the sign of chronic system failure.

There will always be shortcomings in our democracy if personal breakdowns don't generate system breakthroughs. But they don't.

Success and failure in Britain is all about personal behaviour. So wonky working practices, sloppy underlying outlooks and crazy, counter-intuitive bureaucracies all remain intact after public scandals, ready to produce outrage when individuals fail all over again in decades ahead.

Take Tony Blair's sudden confession over Iraq. Outrage is vying with absolute astonishment that the arch strategist appears to have inserted his elegant neck directly into the political noose. Without appearing before Lord Chilcot's commission and without fierce interrogation, Mr Blair told Fern Britton yesterday that he would have taken Britain to war in Iraq even if he had known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

"I would still have thought it right to remove him (Sadaam]. Obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments, about the nature of the threat." All of which suggests international law played no part in Blair's decision to send UK forces to Iraq. All of which inches the SNP's case for legal action closer.

Why did he say it? A mistake prompted by being out of the mainstream media? An explosive reaction to the hostility he encountered during his unsuccessful campaign to become EU president? A clever pre-Chilcot subterfuge? A bizarre pact with Gordon Brown to take the economic heat off Labour by reminding us things could always get worse (we could still be governed by a man who goes to war on a whim)? A belated desire for honesty?

Sheer bloody-minded arrogance? The result of watching Frost/Nixon where, in the film's closing moments, the wily old president finally but voluntarily presses the self-destruct button on screen?

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Maybe Blair, like all of us, has wearied of the endless parade of civil servants, delivering a daily trickle of damning evidence leading inexorably towards the grinning features of their erstwhile boss. Only one person could upstage them. And on Sunday he did.

Are we outraged? Watching the hour-long Fern Britton programme I was struck by how little the "real" Blair came alive. I knew him no better at the end of the clips, interview snippets, and contributions by friends and journalists than I did at the start. But why should that matter?

I have no personal axe to grind against Tony Blair. I don't want to know about his decision to become a leading member of the faith community since leaving office, and I'm not too interested in Alistair Campbell's observation that a trip to church every Sunday left the careworn, jet-lagged premier looking completely refreshed. I don't hate him. I don't like him.

Feminism has always favoured the slogan "the personal is political". Perhaps in an age of hyper-individualism, that slogan needs amendment.

Progressive Christians are urged not to hate the sinner, but the sin. Perhaps it's time to go further and hate neither the sinner nor the sin, but the system that makes both possible.

Why was Tony Blair able to take us to war on a false premise, unchecked by cabinet etiquette, civil service procedure or parliamentary scrutiny?

Why did MPs of both major parties vote down Norman Baker's bill to reform parliamentary expenses three years ago?

Why did the UK government fail to follow "basket-case" Iceland and fully nationalise banks so it could (among other things) dictate remuneration policy?

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Without being able to distinguish between personal and system failure, the numbing impact of serial celebrity transgressions will destroy the public's capacity to believe in anything.

From the ashes of these disillusioning days, another lesson can be drawn.

We are protected and nurtured not by the good deeds or even extraordinary generosity or bravery of the few, but by the daily behaviour and expectations of the many reinforced powerfully by effective systems.

A new book, the Spirit Level demonstrates that most successful societies are equal ones, where fair pay for all and employee engagement are common and punitive sticks and carrots are rare.

Systems make people. And people make systems. Let's make some better ones fast.