Nick Wallis has written what feels like the most important book I have ever read.
“The Great Post Office Scandal” begins with a short foreword by Seema Misra, a victim of the scandal and the former subpostmaster for West Byfleet. It is hard to imagine anything more gently suburban, but in just six short paragraphs, she describes how her quiet, inoffensive world was devastated and how her heart was broken. I didn’t get to the end of the page before there were tears in my eyes.
I was already familiar with the story, and I knew the names and the detail of the plot, but I was not prepared for how each page is part of a crashing, crushing indictment of cruelty and injustice dressed up in ever so appropriate legal process and patronising corporate reasonableness. The Post Office foot soldiers were just following their manuals and the Post Office generals were just seeking their next medals. The plausible justification of it all is what hits hardest.
The Post Office leadership, through ignorance and incompetence (at best) had weaponised corporate governance, policy, precedent and hubris. Their indefatigable arrogance dripped on innocent souls like softly spoken acid.
Of course, we know the world is an unequal place, but we all hope our leaders will strive for equality. The world is an unfair place and so we hope our leaders will strive for fairness. The world, for far too many, is also an unkind place and so we hope our leaders will strive to create a kinder place. It is therefore devastating to imagine how it must be when some who have the power to make a positive difference, instead collude or acquiesce in the destruction of lives and livelihoods.
This book is profoundly important for many reasons. First and foremost, it honours the stories of the victims. They are heard and will now be forever heard. The author’s care in this regard is moving and humbling; Nick deserves enormous credit for the love and respect he shows in the telling of their stories.
However, this is also a book that challenges every leader to examine the gap between their assumptions and the reality of their actions. Evil consequences are rarely perpetrated by evil people, but all too often we see that plausible incompetence, followed by the clinging adherence to mealymouthed expediency, can devastate lives.
This book also has a particular message for lawyers. I would like this book to be read and reread by all lawyers, and to be part of their training from undergraduate level onwards. I especially want ethics to be a vital and explicit part of how we train, assess and reward leadership in our profession.
A journalist and a suburban subpostmaster from Byfleet may then know that we have taken their needs seriously and that such a tragedy is a little less likely to happen ever again.