London, U.K. (TFC) – Grant Shapps, Minister for International Development, resigned today due to the apparent suicide of Tory activist Elliott Johnson. Shapps had been warned about aide Mark Clarke’s bullying but nevertheless appointed him leader of the RoadTrip15 campaign. First, let’s be clear on a couple of things. I’m not saying that bullying isn’t a problem- I was bullied myself all through my school years. I’m not here to defend alleged bully Mark Clarke- if half of the allegations against him are true, he is a dangerous person and may even have perpetrated a form of sexual abuse. I’m not even saying that Grant Shapps couldn’t have done better; maybe he could’ve paid more attention. What I am saying is his responsibility isn’t enough that he needs to resign.
Firstly, 21 year old Elliott Johnson was legally an adult and Grant Shapps wasn’t in loco parentis. Shapps didn’t have the same duty of care (if any) over Johnson as teachers do over their pupils. And in my experience, the experiences of family friends, and even the news, schools’ failure to deal with bullying is far from a rare occurrence. If teachers and headteachers don’t have to resign over not doing enough to stop the bullying of children, why should a minister resign over not doing enough to protect an adult? This question becomes even more poignant when you consider that a headteacher’s sole responsibility is to educate and look after the children under their care. Their charges are always in a building which the headteacher is the boss of and where they are never without staff supervision. By contrast, Shapp’s responsibility was as Minister for International Development. He had a lot on his plate and probably little time to devote to ensuring the psychological wellbeing of the RoadTrip15 participants, who were being bussed all over the country.
And then let’s take a look at Mr Clarke. This man allegedly blackmailed, sexually harassed and abused, physically assaulted and verbally bullied tens of people. Hardly anyone appears to have been able to even stand up to him, never mind actually stop or even avoid his predatory behaviour. Perhaps it’s not totally shocking that Shapps didn’t fare any better.
Another problem with putting all the responsibility on Shapps (instead of those who allegedly bullied and betrayed Johnson) is the linking of the bullying to the suicide. According to Johnson’s parents, he had recently lost his job and his suicide note to them cited “disappoint[ing] everybody” and being a “failure”, as well as financial issues, his redundancy, and losing friends. All these problems are mentioned before he describes his conflict with Clarke and Andre Walker. Rather than mentioning the trauma Clarke inflicted on him, Johnson appears to be mourning the supposed effect his ill-judged reaction of “wrongly turn[ing] my back on my friends” will have on his future political career: “Now all my political bridges are burnt. Where can I even go from here?” The theme of politics rears its head again soon afterwards, with the suggestion that Johnson may have become disillusioned with the movement or is confused about his political beliefs: “Even if I had done the right thing in my heart first and not been caught up in the fake idea of a rightwing movement. But that is that. I am sorry it has come to this.” Reading Johnson’s note (as provided to The Guardian by his parents), it is difficult to conclude that bullying was the sole or even main reason for Johnson’s suicide. So many issues are mentioned, such as career prospects, political identity and expressions of low self-esteem (being a failure who has disappointed his family). All of this, along with the claim that Walker betrayed him, seems compatible with the friendship issues, angst and identity crises common among young people. Issues of unemployment, financial woes and the depression that often accompanies them have become much worse for graduates in the last few years as they struggle to find and keep graduate-level jobs, which impacts on housing, self-confidence and relationships.
This bleak reality often comes as a shock to young graduates who often grew up being told that if they went to university they were guaranteed highly-paid secure employment. The fate of many graduates now is debt and underemployment. And for Johnson it may have come as more of a shock than to others. Because up until he lost his job, everything worked out seamlessly for him. He won 80% of the vote in a mock election at school and was congratulated by Boris Johnson, then landed his dream job before even completing his degree. The job ended just two months later and a few weeks after that Elliott took his own life.
But even if we assume that bullying was the only reason for Johnson’s suicide, that still doesn’t mean it was Shapp’s fault. Reading and watching the coverage of the Grant Shapps story it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that if Elliott had responded to the bullying in a way other than suicide, the story of Clarke’s bullying wouldn’t be big news and Shapps may not have resigned. This is totally wrong and unfair to all concerned. We should judge people by their actions and motives, not by arbitrary events which were unforeseeable- even Johnson’s parents had no idea that their son was depressed or suicidal.
Instead of blaming Shapps we should be finding out why Johnson lacked the ability to cope with Clarke’s alleged bullying while all of Clarke’s many other victims did not. If we understand more about why some people commit suicide and others don’t, we could eventually improve drugs or therapy used to treat depression and suicidal ideation, and prevent these tragedies from occurring. Such knowledge could also enable employers, job centres, schools and universities to better identify people at risk of suicide. (For example, if the reason for Johnson’s suicide was that he had multiple problems at once, employers could be trained to lessen workloads for employees known to have simultaneous multiple issues without the need for employees or occupational health services to request such action).
It’s also very ironic that Grant Shapps has resigned over responsibility for one suicide while Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Ian Duncan Smith remains in power after causing at least 590 suicides, none of which he has ever accepted responsibility or apologised for.