SINGAPORE - JUNE 20: Academy Award-winning English actor, novelist, film director and screen writer Lord Julian Fellowes speaks during the In Conversation With at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre on June 20, 2017 in Singapore. In Conversation With series is one of the many ways Marina Bay Sands gives back to the local community through its corporate social responsibility programme, Sands for Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, believes Britain is living 'too much in the past' © Getty

Is there some kind of Irony Olympics going on? Is it too late to buy tickets?

This week the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, complained Britain is “living too much in the past”. I don’t mind being accused of nostalgia, but given that Lord Fellowes intravenously injected us with TV costume dramas for a decade, his intervention reminds me of the anaesthetist who once complained that I looked a bit dopey.

Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and perhaps those who occupy Dorset manor houses dating back to 1633 might think twice before musing aloud that their countrymen lack modern dwellings.

It’s a nailed-on gold medal in the individual irony category for Lord Fellowes. Or at least it was until Julian Assange accused the Ecuadorean government of invading his privacy.

But in the team irony event, there is only one winner: the UK government. Months ago, it declared itself a champion of global free trade, while simultaneously negotiating its departure from the world’s largest free-trade area. But top-level irony
is a marathon, not a sprint. It turns out the trade ploy was just a warm-up.

Theresa May’s government has now taken irony to samurai standard by announcing plans for no-fault divorces. Really, if there’s one country on earth that should not be talking about faultless divorces, it is Britain. All we have achieved in the past three years is fault, long before any signs of an actual divorce.

The government’s proposals are designed to avoid roughly this scenario. Last year a 68-year-old woman called Tini Owens failed to divorce her husband, because he wouldn’t agree and they hadn’t lived apart for the required five years.

This is of course sensible, and designed to avoid rancorous proceedings that scar children. But although divorces are short on many things, blame is not one of them. Even Ms Owens kept a diary of incidents involving her husband of which she might later complain.

Why should blame stop with the couple themselves? There’s a Simpsons episode where Marge is horrified to learn that two neighbours separated at one of her parties.

“I feel terrible. We shouldn’t have served those North Korean fortune cookies,” she says. “You can’t keep blaming yourself,” her husband Homer helpfully replies. “Just blame yourself once and move on.”

To be honest, I thought blaming people once was what the courts were all about. So if the law stops taking an interest in whose fault things are, the rest of us are due a rethink. Could we have a no-fault politics? Like when failing football managers depart through “mutual consent”, but for real?

Each British prime minister would turn up at the end of their five-year term, and ask for a dissolution of parliament, no fault attributed. It has many advantages over the current system, where all living British leaders are blamed for everything bad that happened during their tenure, and given no credit for any achievements.

The no-fault approach to business may already have been tried. Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar studios, describes a moment in the making of Toy Story 2 when the animators accidentally deleted 90 per cent of the film sequences — amounting to two years’ work.

The back-up system hadn’t been working either. The project was only saved when it turned out that one employee had saved large amounts of files.

Afterwards Pixar did not engage in a blame game. “Our people have good intentions,” Mr Catmull writes in his book Creativity Inc. “To think you can control or prevent random problems by making an example of someone is naive and wrong-headed.”

Pixar’s culture of not attributing fault seemed very admirable. But then Mr Catmull’s collaborator, and Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter was revealed to have developed a reputation for “grabbing, kissing [and] making comments about physical attributes”.

Mr Lasseter left last year after admitting “mis-steps”. I don’t know the details, but perhaps a few rounds of the blame game might have brought the whole thing to a swifter conclusion. Call me old-fashioned. As long as you’re not the creator of Downton Abbey.

henry.mance@ft.com

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