This recounts an evisceration of governance in the British state, not from some outlandish radical but from the outgoing director of the Institute for Government (IfG).
The IfG is described as the UK’s ‘leading think tank working to make government more effective’. It is an institution close to the British establishment – check out its board of directors! For this reason its output is always ‘interesting’! The present director, Bronwen Maddox is leaving after six years to become director of Chatham House. Recently (11 July) she delivered her valedictory lecture entitled ‘What’s wrong with Britain’s government’. (The transcript is available here: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/IfG-director-lecture-2022_0.pdf )
It’s worth examining her assessment and then pondering some questions: (a) is Scotland really ‘better together’ and subject to this system and culture of government? (ii) how could Scotland NOT do better with independence? (iii) does the British/English establishment have the capacity, capability – indeed any real desire – to change? I’ll begin at the end of Ms Maddox’ address: her personal conclusion is telling (with my emphasis):
‘I took this job as director of the Institute for Government because I had seen, as a foreign correspondent and editor, how in many troubled countries there really is such a thing as wasting all the effort for improvement and all the money if there is no good government. My only reservation in accepting David Sainsbury’s invitation to be the next director was that I thought Britain’s problems weren’t as serious. I’m now convinced I was wrong.’
I find the following extracts especially pertinent from the perspective of Scotland and its coming decision on self-determination and dissolving the Union:
‘One of the things wrong with British government in the past few years has been Boris Johnson. There is no code or constitution that can immediately stop someone who is prepared to lie and break the fundamental rules and conventions. The damage that causes a is huge. The rules and constitution won, in the end, but he illustrated how vulnerable they are.’
I’d argue that:
- the Tory Party – MPs and all its members – were complicit in giving Johnson his position of power
- Scotland not only rejected Johnson’s version of Toryism but it has rejected the Tory Party and its values for decades – too often to no avail
- a constitution based on the ‘good chaps’ theory of government is always going to be vulnerable – Scotland needs a modern, protective, codified constitution.
(For Peter Hennessy on the ‘good chaps’ theory: see https://consoc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FINAL-Blick-Hennessy-Good-Chaps-No-More.pdf )
Maddox reflects on what Johnson might have resorted to: ‘the presidential system that Jacob Rees-Mogg asserts that we already essentially have, where voters elect someone directly to the top job.’
I’d argue that:
- the case for electoral reform in the UK/England seems overwhelming and urgent. However, in a recent interview on LBC with Andrew Marr, the leader of the Labour Party stated that electoral reform would not be a priority for a Labour government.
Maddox selects four key problems from among others facing British government and constitution that she argues need urgent repair. These she sees are issues ‘degrading the culture of public life, undermining Britain’s role in the world and destroying the ability of any government to improve things.’ The four are:
- ‘lying, bending the truth and self-delusion’
- ‘lack of skill’
- ‘lack of accountability’
It’s quite a charge sheet to come from the director of an organisation like the IfG. It’s quite a condemnation of a Tory government to read if one did actually vote for the Tory Party: how much more unacceptable is it when said government is imposed on you against the will of a majority in your country!
- On ‘cronyism’ – ‘… its pervasiveness in British government. Crony is almost a cosy word, making it sound as if it’s just about being a bit too nice to your mates. In practice, it is indistinguishable from corruption.’
Maddox lists Tory examples: (a) Robert Jenrick’s approval for Richard Desmond’s development in Tower Hamlets, saving Desmond £45m in taxes – two weeks later Desmond gave £12,000 to the Conservative Party; (b) Johnson’s appointment of Peter Cruddas to the House of Lords – three days later Cruddas donates £500,000 to the Tory Party (he has given £4m overall); (c) Johnson’s attempt to change parliamentary lobbying rules to save the career of Owen Paterson; (d) the awarding of PPE contracts – those with political connections directed to a ‘VIP lane’ where bids were 10 times more likely to be successful than those without such connections.
She reinforces her concerns but also broadens her target: ‘How is this different from corruption? It’s not obvious to me – or the rest of the world. It appears to be the simple trading of favours for cash. …. The shadow of cash for honours still hangs over Tony Blair’s premiership. David Cameron promised to clean up politics but has been exposed to be lobbying former colleagues over Greensill.’
And on wider consequences: ’These cases hurt Britain’s reputation. It is delusional to think they don’t. Those in British government like to bask in imagined compliments for good government when that isn’t what others see. A current joke about Britain in Italy …. is that at least Berlusconi bought his own wallpaper.’
2. On ‘lying, bending the truth and self-delusion’ – Maddox refers to: (a) Johnson and the Pincher incident; (b) repeated false statements about employment statistics; and (c) misclaims about Brexit – on the latter adding ‘I could give this talk just on that’.
She could have added the catalogue of lies evidenced by Peter Stefanovic – see https://twitter.com/PeterStefanovi2/status/1459541907772780546?cxt=HHwWhMC9ubroqsEoAAAA
These serious flaws have been around for some time: ‘Again, Johnson was not the first. Of all Tony Blair’s mistakes over Iraq, one of the most egregious was the “sexed up” dossier about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion. Gordon Brown did a lot to destroy confidence in spending claims from the government, winning a reputation for dressing up old money as new. ‘
Maddox argues these issues matter even more in the era of social media and given the challenges from the world of “alternative facts”. But she goes further with her evisceration of British governance:
‘It also leads, more subtly, to self-delusion, and that is, I feel, one of the pernicious problems of British government. Delusions of grandeur, certainly, about Britain’s place in the world, underpinned by a lack of understanding of the basis for other countries’ success, such as that of Germany and Japan. Delusions about our history; I saw officials in Iraq and Afghanistan too happy to court compliments for peace making in Northern Ireland, and ignorant about historic defeats in Afghanistan. Delusions of intellect; it is one of the unspoken beliefs in the civil service that Britain is really good at policy making, just bad at delivery. Actually, it often falls short at both.’
3. On ‘lack of skill’ – Maddox argues that: ‘there is still a lack of the right skills and specialist knowledge in the civil service and among ministers. … That is mainly the result of the speed with which people move between jobs. There is a huge turnover of officials and ministers – and prime ministers. It leaves other countries incredulous.’
‘… the principle of the bright “generalist”. …. It leads to improvisation and of shallow answers, and does nothing to combat magical thinking about what can be done. Delivery always takes patience and skill but sometimes the problem is with the policy itself, which is undeliverable. The Northern Ireland border since Brexit is one example, and there is a lack of real understanding of Northern Ireland across Whitehall which means it is often left out of the discussion entirely.’
4. On ‘lack of accountability’ – here Maddox refers to lack of accountability of ministers, officials and public bodies. She argues that much of the problem stems from lack of leadership at the top: ‘Those in Rishi Sunak’s campaign team now ask why, having given the NHS more money, the prime minister’s team did not stay on the case with meetings constantly asking where the 40 hospitals he promised were (one has been built and only seven more are underway). That is a good question.’
And highlighting another assessment: ‘In a report just six weeks ago on the Afghan exit called Missing in Action, the Foreign Affairs Committee produced a more scathing verdict than any committee verdict I can remember. It blamed the Foreign Office, the national security adviser and ministers for a fundamental lack of planning, grip or leadership which led to Britain abandoning its allies and damaging its interests. It said there was no clear line of command within the leadership of the government.’
Do you recall reading much about this parliamentary committee report in the news media: do you recall a government minister being challenged by a BBC journalist? Compare and contrast the role of the media in ‘holding to account’ the Scottish Government.
Amongst a long list, Maddox argues for changes to the powers of parliament and other checks on the power of an over-weening prime minister:
- ‘looking’ again at the voting system – ‘First past the post and the adversarial system it produces is running out of use in a big complex country of many different people where cross- party agreement on policies that persists for years is needed if the country is ever, for example, going to have an energy policy.’
- ‘looking’ again at the legitimacy of the second chamber.
Candidly, her wish for more ‘looking’ is likely to lead nowhere!
- give consideration to Lord Sumption’s suggestion that the Privy Council – which exercises the monarch’s prerogative powers – should get more of a formal role to give independent advice on the limits to the prime minister’s authority
- Maddox argues that ‘challenges to constitutional conventions are going to come up more now that we are moving beyond the ability of convention alone to act as enough restraint’ (We well remember the dismantlement of the Sewell Convention!)
The proposal from Lord Sumption seems to be about giving more authority to unelected individuals who exercise power and influence linked to the power of a monarch – this fails to reassure or attract me!
- more devolution – ‘itself a desirable goal in itself’ – Maddox adds this ’would help a bit in providing a check on Westminster. But it is not a panacea unless it is itself subject more accountability in turn. There is too little scrutiny of devolved administrations, which have only one chamber of parliament, and even less for local councils’
On ‘providing a check on Westminster’, did Labour’s Anas Sarwar not recently promise that the next Labour government in Westminster would legislate to enforce collaboration – or was it agreement – between Holyrood and Westminster governments?
And on ‘too little scrutiny of devolved administrations’, one can only assume Ms Maddox does not partake of the so-called Scottish press or BBC Scotland output!On examining the role of the media in holding government to account more generally, Maddox either ran out of energy, ideas or time as, oddly, she has little substantial to say on the subject. However she notes: ‘One of the more disturbing reported comments by the prime minister is that he believed he could survive if only Twitter had been shut down’.
Maddox notes: ‘Boris Johnson has made the problems of government – and of the country – worse than they were. But he is a symptom, as Donald Trump was (and may yet be again), of the difficulty in a modern country of uniting a lot of different people, of forging these huge political coalitions, and the temptation of doing it with promises that cannot be kept. He has illustrated how inadequate the conventions are for keeping a prime minister in line.’
And as supporters of Scotland’s independence are having to explain time and time again, our cause is not based on a reaction to Boris Johnson.Johnson may indeed be a symptom – of many things. The case for Scotland to be independent again is deeper, broader and longer lived – and more resilient – than any single UK Prime Minister, whether a relatively ‘good’ one or ‘bad’.
What Maddox sees – from her British/Anglo centric establishment position – is a system and a culture of governance unsuited to the 21st Century. Agreed! However, she appears to underplay the fact that it is the favoured state of a governing establishment consisting of multiple British/English nationalist political parties. They have long been content with the status quo.
She describes a system and culture – one unlikely to change – that fails to meet the needs and aspirational wants of Scotland. There is a just and a feasible solution for Scotland – only one!