Monday, 13 April 2009

A sign of the times

The British domestic political story I commented on on Saturday gives rise to an interesting question, that question is contained in the title to this little piece.

The superannuated thug Damian McBride is not a Member of Parliament. He was not elected to anything, he had no ministerial duties and no government department to manage. No chain of responsibility made him answerable to the public for what he did nor was he required to answer to MPs in the House of Commons. Yet his downfall has been reported in a manner not seen when cabinet ministers have been forced out of office through incompetence or corruption. Such ministers have been replaced by promoting an equally incompetent government party lackey from the lower ranks of the ministerial pyramid and there has been no mention of their departure striking at the heart of the government machine. The Sunday newspapers were clear and consistent in their description of Mr McBride's as a seriously big fish. Jane Merrick of The Independent described him as "a proper scalp, one of the most prized in Westminster". The Sunday Times talked of him as "one of the prime minister's most senior lieutenants". In The Observer he was described as being part of "Brown's inner circle" and in the Mail on Sunday as an occupant of "Mr Brown's No 10 War Room".

It's a rather strange state of affairs that an unelected, unaccountable toady can be considered by the main commentariat as more significant to government than a cabinet minister. I suppose there might be an element of journalistic narcissism involved in that his job was to manipulate the information leaked to the press and the select band of recipients are bound to consider that a particularly important job. But there seems to be far more to it than that. Controlling the news and steering the message received by those who report the news are now major parts of the government machine, particularly in relation to the Prime Minister himself. I find this very disturbing.

One would have to be absurdly naive not to recognise that incumbent politicians want to stay in office and will always seek to put the best possible gloss on what they do. To that end they will need assistance and that assistance will cost money. The job of such assistants is, however, a party political job it is not a government job. They are employed to further the interests of the government as against the opposition parties. And by far their most important function will be to limit the damage done by the incumbent governing politicians' own mistakes. To have a unit in the Prime Minister's office, paid for by taxpayers, whose purpose is to further the interests of the governing party is a gross abuse of power; it exemplifies government for the government not government for the people.

And, of course, there is no easy way to stop it. If, as seems likely, the Conservatives defeat Labour at the next general election is there any realistic prospect of them not putting in place a similar unit filled with their own bullying, mendacious sycophants? The only way to prevent it is to enforce the supposed rule against civil servants engaging in party political activities. Ah, there's a big of a snag with that. Who can enforce it and how? It cannot be left to the Minister for the Civil Service because that is the Prime Minister. It could be done by the grand fromage of the civil service if only he were given the power, but that could draw him too closely into party politics because his decisions would be questions and his own impartiality brought into question by those on the wrong end of his verdicts. It could be done by a Parliamentary Select Committee, but they have a numerical balance in favour of the incumbent party.

I know not what the right solution is but one must be found because the more tightly the power over the dissemination of information is concentrated in 10 Downing Street the more isolated the Prime Minister (of whichever party) will be from both substantive criticism and the need to justify his policy positions. The more narrowly power is concentrated, the fewer the people who take decisions and the less scrutiny those decisions receive. Only one thing can result, bad government of ever-increasing badness as the Prime Minister withdraws further and further into his bunker to limit examination of, and debate about, his decisions and their effect.

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