29th March 2021
Many will have Very Strong Opinions about the basic ills in the United Kingdom political system.
Some will point to individual politicians (Thatcher, Blair, Johnson, Corbyn, Farage etc) or political parties (Tories!).
Others will point to political ideas (Brexit, Remain, Centrism, neo-liberalism, ‘woke’-ism).
A minority will aver that there are structural failures – unelected head of state or upper chamber, the lack of proportional representation, and so on.
Perhaps these views are correct, but the more I write about the law and policy of the United Kingdom, the more there seems one particular fault in the conduct of public public affairs.
It is almost impossible – in practical terms – to hold many with executive power to account.
Of course, there is constitutional theory – such as the supposition that ministers are accountable to parliament.
But even typing or saying that feels artificial if not ridiculous.
Ministers routinely avoid saying things to parliament and, if they do, they are adept at saying untrue, or misleading, or incomplete things.
And there is no real sanction if a minister does mislead or disregard parliament.
That ministers are accountable to parliament is not so much a constitutional principle, but a lack of a principle.
It is a rhetorical cloak that hides the lack of any real accountability.
Contrast with, say, judges.
A judge has to give reasons for their decision – and those decisions must explain why they took that decision and not any other decision; the decisions of judges can be appealed or reviewed by other courts; and the law applied by a judge can be changed.
You may sneer at judges in their (daft) robes and wigs, but they are practically day-to-day accountable in at least three ways.
Ministers, in contrast, do not need to have reasons that add up for most of their decisions; they are free from having those decisions properly scrutinised by their political peers; and there is no real limit to what they can legislate if they are so minded.
And apart from the remote possibility of a legal challenge, or an eventual general election, they are safe from actual accountability.
There are various causes of this:
– the elective dictatorship of parliament, where the government also has control of the elected part of the legislature, is a primary cause;
– the lack (with a few notable exceptions) of a press that is geared to holding ministers to account rather than being a means of transmission of information from/about the government to the public;
– the hold that political parties continue to have in the recruitment and promotion of candidates;
– our tribal and increasingly hyper-partisan political culture;
– the increasing lack of care of voters about being lied to by ministers – for, as this blog has previously averred, there is no practical point exposing the lies of ministers if people do not mind being lied to; and
– the absence – despite the Very Strong Opinions of constitutional hobbyists – of a consensus for what alternative constitutional arrangements would be an improvement.
(‘We demand a written constitution’ say those who rarely then explain how a written constitution would not just be an opportunity by the executive to entrench its own power.)
An index of how weak our constitution is in respect of accountability is how, when things go wrong, it is customary to demand a public inquiry.
For if our constitutional worked well in respect of accountability then there would be proper scrutiny at the time – and public inquiries would be an exceptional event.
Mere exposure of problems is not enough – indeed, few of those who think anything about our public affairs will be unaware of many of the problems.
It is instead an everyday failure to get ministers to engage with those problems, to explain what went wrong and to say how the problems can be addressed – the very stuff of accountability.
So many things in our political system now point away from this lack of accountability being fixed quickly.
And so the accountability gap widens and widens.
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