REPUBLICAN PARTY NEWSLETTER
For a Civic and Constitutional Republic
Issue No 48 Friday 28 August 2009
Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.
· Whom do you trust most? The elected or the unelected?
Take your pick
In the last couple of weeks, there have been reported viewpoints on two important issues facing the country. Both have come from outside the immediate political arena of Westminster. Both are challenging and important. Both in theory could have been made by elected politicians within government but, in fact, both came from people who, whilst being (or having been) deeply involved in the government of the country, were never elected to their positions.
The first of these viewpoints came from four Lords, former cabinet secretaries, Lord Turnbull (from 2002-05) Lord Butler of Brockwell (1988-98), Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (1979-87) and Lord Wilson of Dinton (1998-02) while they were giving evidence to a Lords committee which is investigating the workings of the cabinet office
It was Lord Turnbull who famously accused Brown of acting with "Stalinist ruthlessness", and said that Brown, Cameron and Osborne had entered parliament too young: "They are not people of seniority and wisdom."
Their lordships accused New Labour of abandoning cabinet government during its time in power and routinely bypassing the civil service to exert greater political control over Whitehall. In an indictment of the Blair-Brown years, the four former cabinet secretaries – who served three prime ministers over 26 years –warned that the style of both leaders is a threat to Britain's constitutional settlement.
These senior figures declared that:
• Britain's "great institution" of joint cabinet government is threatened by the growing power of the prime minister.
• Whitehall has been politicised with Blair and Brown presiding over a "massive increase" in special advisers.
The attacks from the former cabinet secretaries, made in evidence to the Lords' constitution committee, highlight the deep unease in Whitehall at the centralisation of power over the past decade. These, ex-civil servants, who normally speak in code, have spoke out in undiplomatic language in their evidence to the select committee.
Whom do you trust the most?
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster accused Blair of having a worse record in amassing personal power than Margaret Thatcher. "Some of those methods which he would have chosen conflicted with what I see as the fundamental position of the relationship between the prime minister and departmental ministers. Those frictions actually created bad relations among ministers and were setbacks to the efficient and proper conduct of government."
Brown and Blair also bolstered political control over Whitehall with a "massive increase" in political advisers. Turnbull said: "Brown, when chancellor, created … the panel of economic advisers – it was just a smokescreen to get more special advisers. He had something like nine and No 10 was thick with special advisers … it increased the strength of the centre on policy."
Lord Butler claimed that the "old system" of cabinet government favoured more counterweights against prime ministerial centralism. In particular, he said he wanted the Cabinet Office to remain an independent support for ministers – not absorbed into the Prime Minister's Office as an enforcement department of No 10.
These arguments that the office of prime minister has far too much power will be familiar to readers of this newsletter. But what is of special interest here is that these views have been aired publically, not by elected politicians who are supposed to represent our interests and seek to defend good government, but from people who were never elected but nevertheless were intimately part of government.
Of course, it could be argued that they are biased. They did, after all, feel that it was their positions that were being undermined. But this does not make their views invalid. The country needs to form a view about whether it wants a prime minister dominating all the decisions, ignoring Parliament and ignoring and downgrading the civil service.
Defending the present relationship of politicians to the civil service, Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, told the Lords committee that cabinet government "died a long time ago. The cabinet is not the right body in which to attempt to make difficult decisions, it has too many members for a proper debate … it is for that reason that since at least the late 1970s the cabinet has been used to ratify decisions rather than take them."
He has a point. There is a weakness in the argument that “cabinet government”, which is really only an idea in people’s minds not a constitutional fact, should be our main defense against prime ministerial power. The whole notion is too vapid to perform this role. But it is not good enough as Powell does to simply present the current tendency as inevitable.
Perhaps the more important point to draw from their lordships’ comments is that the civil service has a vital role to play in achieving a truly balanced government. This is the important point to draw out. In the political climate in which we live, practically the only word that has any political currency is “democracy”. Many people have great difficulty in appreciating the fact that we need the stability and the expertise that a permanent professional civil service gives us and that is something that lies outside the democratic processes
Democracy is not the be-all-and-end-all. Most people would say that our current elected politicians are failing us abjectly. The solutions to our problems must surely lie in part in revising our democratic institutions in some way, but we need at the same time to look to the non-elected aspects of government.
It is your choice?
The second significant comment by an unelected official comes from Adair Turner, Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services authority. Aditya Chakrabortty, of the Guardian wrote on, Thursday 27 August 2009
“It has taken the top City regulator – and an ex-banker to boot – to show any real steel in the drive for financial reform
“He said what? To get some idea of just how radical yesterday's comments from Adair Turner are, consider this: the chairman of the City's top watchdog has just gone on record as saying
· that the financial services industry is too big, and that some of what it does is "socially useless".
· that a tax on financial transactions – what's called a Tobin tax after the economist who came up with the idea in the 1970s – may be a good idea.
“For most of the past three decades the most vocal supporters of a Tobin tax have been either development pressure groups or French Trotskyists. But Lord Turner is neither French nor some hardboiled Trot entryist: he's an ex-McKinsey consultant and former vice-chairman of US bank Merrill Lynch turned financial regulator.”
“ … in this debate over financial regulation the people making the running do not hail from Westminster. Instead you have Adair Turner, and Mervyn King doing his best Victorian headmaster act and warning of feckless bankers overpaying themselves. Meanwhile, the politicians – the group that should be the shock conductors for popular anger over the bailouts and bonuses – are running up the white flags.
“The first chapter of Alistair Darling's July white paper on banking reform was devoted to explaining just how important the City is to the UK economy. The Treasury's ledger of revenues from financial services did not include a debit column that listed the amount lost on institutional bailouts and tax avoidance – of course it didn't.
“Put to one side, if you can, the watchdogs' manifold failings in the run-up to the banking crisis. In the debate over reforming the City there has been none of the regulatory capture that economists usually fret about – where the regulators forget about the public interest, and rig the rules to suit the very sector they're meant to be supervising. There is, however, plenty of evidence of political capture. This isn't just a New Labour problem; it applies also to David Cameron and George Osborne, whose policies are nowhere near as tough as their rhetoric – and to Barack Obama's administration, which, on everything from regulating bonuses to handing out taxpayer money, appears to have turned into an unglamorous subsidiary of Goldman Sachs”
Again it is left to the unelected Lord Turner to point out that “there is also an anxiety about the dominance of wholesale financial services in the UK economy, and about how many "highly intelligent people from our best universities" are sucked into creating derivatives and other such life-affirming activities.”
With the failure of the political establishment and all its parties of whatever colour now being laid bare, it seems that the unelected are less afraid to speak out than in the past. But so the argument goes, because they are not elected they are not “accountable”.
The big idea to appreciate here is that the fact of their being non-accountable in the sense of democratically non-accountable can be an advantage. The fact that you can speak out from a democratically non-accountable office may well allow you to speak out without walking away from your real opinions.
We need people in government that are democratically accountable but we also need professionals that are not so accountable. This is not to say they are totally non-accountable for ultimately no one is that. But they accountable to a different constituency from the elected
At present the strong emphasis is on the democratically accountable holding all the reins. We need to redress the balance and a well designed republican constitution with a high degree of permanence will do that.
For the meantime we should listen carefully to those who speak from outside the cut and thrust of Westminster. These people are not all fools and neither are they all knaves. Objectivity, independence and professionalism is something we should value.
Recommended article of the week
· On 27 August 2009 the final TV set made in England is due to roll off the production line in Plymouth.
While the financial sector is bailed out with billions of tax payers’ money this is a poignant reminder of what has been happening to manufacturing over the last 50 years and of the intolerably harsh financial environment that our productive companies have to survive under.
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……. …….until next time