The Accountability Gap and the State of the United Kingdom

19th June 2021

Here is a challenge.

Think of a normal, day-to-day process of the United Kingdom state.

And then try to think of examples when that process has succeeded in holding the state accountable – that is against the government’s wishes.

It is not easy.

Freedom of information is impotent.

The public services ombudsman is inefficient (at best).

Debates on the floor of the house of commons – and ‘opposition days’ – provide little more than Westminster theatre.

The prime minister casually lies at the weekly set-piece of political accountability, without any sanction or shame.

Written parliamentary questions take an age to be answered – and the answers given are often useless.

Government press offices are expensive exercises in not providing any help other than to the careers of those who staff them.

The only exception is that, from time to time, a parliamentary select committee can publish a report that hits through – though this often is down to the capabilities and qualities of whichever clerks work for the committee, than to the MPs and peers which formally comprise the committee’s membership.

And so because the normal processes of the state are generally so weak that we end up with ad hoc processes such as inquires and court cases to force the state into accounting for its actions (and inactions) against its will.

Think here of the post office scandal litigation, and think of the Hillsborough and Daniel Morgan panels.

And there are other examples.

(And imagine how many examples there are where there have not been such determined campaigners dedicated in getting at the truth.)

Ad hoc exercises in practical accountability such as court cases and panel inquiries are, however, often undermined (as this blog averred yesterday) by a legal inability to force disclosure against the state’s will or interests.

And each success in forcing accountability by means of a court case or an inquiry usually has equal and opposite significance as an example of failure of the institutions of the state to have held other parts of the state properly accountable in the first place.

In particular: the failure of parliament to be an effective check on the executive.

There is a severe accountability gap in the state of the United Kingdom.

And it is from this gap so many other political problems emerge.


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14 thoughts on “The Accountability Gap and the State of the United Kingdom”

  1. The “Nice Chap” theory of Government fails utterly when the people in question are not “Nice Chaps”

    I recommend the work of Sarah Kendizor for an examination of what happens when the guardrails don’t just come off, but turn out to have been illusory all along. Her observations are in the context of the USA and Trumpism, but the same base principles apply

    1. I second this. Sarah K was one of the few journalists to have expected Trump’s success and to take him and his mob completely seriously. Find her on Twitter and on her podcast with Andrea Chalupa, Gaslit Nation. It’s not a coincidence that both of them work from experience of authoritarian states in the ex-Soviet bloc – from studying them, and through family histories.

    2. ‘The “Nice Chap” theory of Government fails utterly when the people in question are not “Nice Chaps”’
      Absolutely correct.

      This is exactly what Lord Hailsham, said in his 1976 BBC Dimbleby Lecture when noting that there was a “danger of an elected dictatorship” in the UK due to the “fragility of its constitutional arrangements” which he said in essence depend solely on the “consciences of members’ of government.”

      He drew on what Lord Chief Justice Hewart in wrote in 1929 in his book ‘The New Despotism” in which he noted the worrying development of the strategy of powerful governments ‘to subordinate Parliament, to evade the Courts, to render the will, or caprice of the Executive unfettered or supreme’ via use of Parliamentary procedure to nullify and block debate, and also use of Statutory Instruments.

      Speaking at a webinar of the International Bar Association on Oct 7th 2020 about the IMB, Lord Neuberger noted it would enable the government to breach international law and exempt some of its powers from legal challenge, and commented that the UK was on the ‘slippery slope to tyranny.’
      It should be sobering that that was said publicly by the former President of the Supreme Court of the UK.

      In my opinion for decades now in the UK the political elites have not been about appointing ‘nice chaps’ but rather ensuring he or she is, ‘one of us’ and ‘a safe pair of hands’ who ‘won’t rock the boat’.

  2. Quite. And for each ‘unauthorised’ intervention by a legal or quasi-legal process there is soon a move by this government to limit the use of such process in the future. It has already removed the need to argue a position amongst its European peers in the European Council, a discipline that it is surely happy to lose, and it mutters darkly about removing us from the ECHR’s jurisdiction. A government of quality would be able to explain and defend its positions and policies on the floor of Parliament or in any court-room. Instead it prefers to have press briefings and control who asks and answers questions. International comparisons are not flattering.

  3. Marcus Rashford has had more success than most in holding this state accountable. Let’s hope he (& rest of squad) can up their collective game against a few other states in Euro 2020.

  4. Perhaps the ultimate “nice chaps” we rely upon are the police. A police officer’s testimony in court is still given great deference, even though not just ordinary mistakes but deliberate falsehoods are far from being unknown. But what happens when the police are caught lying under oath? Is there a near-automatic trial for perjury? No, and when there are trials convictions are rare (or at least seldom reported). This would be a good place to instill accountability.

  5. It appears to me that true democracy is commensurate with accountability and without the latter the former is in dispute as to its relevance. This, sad to say in a country that was once internationally renowned for its democratic governance.

  6. I completely agree. The question is: If your analysis of the status quo is correct, what is the conclusion?
    Mine is: the entire set up of the UK’s politicalsystem is no longerfit for purpose. It is in urgent need of a revamp.
    To start with: a written constitution, an elected head of state and an elected second chamber. There’sa lot more to be done but these are the key ingredientsof a modern democracy.

  7. In view of Johnson’s latest move to de-fang the Electoral Commission, this is a very pressing issue. In normal times, people might take to the streets to demonstrate, but in a pandemic this avenue is closed. Ultimately, one imagines that “the people” will have their say and kick Johnson out of office (assuming that he doesn’t cut and run first). I would hope that a Starmer administration would have the integrity to ensure that this shortfall is blocked in future, but I doubt it will be a priority – it ought to be. Perhaps Chesham and Amersham may prove to be a watershed moment: Johnson is not the PM that the UK deserves – he is unfit to be even an MP.

  8. The infamous UK FOI act was castrated by the government on its inception and has proven to be virtually useless in the process of holding them to account with every tom, dick or harry with a marker pen able to block publication at a whim on whatever grounds they feel like blocking it all hiding behind a screen of industrial denial.

    But what should we expect was going to happen if any allowance was made towards blocking tactics, and this is where the system falls on its face, it does not generate open government, all it generates is more cash for the legal system that then has to fight the government in court to obtain information rightly the property of the people.

    The total lack of oversight of the actions of MP’s and departments has brought this miserable situation about and until tat is corrected no meaningful progress will ever be made on holding the democratic process to account in the UK and I really do mean oversight with teeth large enough to put the fear of god into any MP.

  9. True and now there is almost nothing to stop the executive doing what it wants. I see OGH has covered much of this before – 11th March seems very apt.

    We don’t do revolution, we don’t do protest very much, a takeover bid is very unlikely. Sooner or later we will get fed up with Johnson et al and swap them for a lookalike. The replacement will discover there are no rules or barriers. So we go on.

    Personally I liked being in the EU, convenient travel and at least there was someone to tap our executive on the shoulder. Mrs May as Home Secretary seemed just a little bit frightened of the ECHR. Now there is nothing – very depressing.

  10. I guess the question is to whom HMG feels or is accountable
    A bit like the Police Chief or Officer who said they serve the crown and not the people.

  11. I had just finished reading Jane Davidsons book #futuregen on the making of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 when I picked up this post. In that book, Davidson’s descriptions of cross party and civil society support over the years it took to build the act are both optimistic and pragmatic. I put the book down with sense of relief that something similar might be done in the UK. Well, Lord Bird has begun the process of doing exactly that, his act has seen a first reading in the Lords, and Caroline Lucas is supporting the bill in the Commons.

    Your post took the wind out my sails. Not as a surprise, but a reminder of what is. As things stand a private member’s bill that calls for increased levels of responsibility and accountability is just not going to happen. Unless … who knows?

  12. The FOIA might not be the panacea we hoped for, but things are mostly better than before the FOIA. The government might be dastardly and wriggle in relation to some political hot potatoes. But in less contentious policy areas there is generally a lot more transparency these days. Many parts of government go through detailed consultations on proposed legislation, and publish detailed research papers, that would never have happened before. You can read it all, and the responses. And if the government ignores the reasonable comments made, you see them doing it.

    But it is the truth that the country that was once the leader on developing democracy has, especially since the 2WW, fallen behind more progressive nations. And this is the origin of our present inequalities and other democratic disappointments.

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