Monday, February 25, 2008

Judicial representation – a good thing?

Further to yesterday’s post, I’m going to argue here that the way that parliamentarians respond to attacks from the men in white suits over the coming months and years could result in a move towards a more judicial representation in place of our current ‘parliamentary prerogative’ arrangements.

And if it does happen I’m not sure it’s going to be a good thing.

Here’s how I see things playing out: I suspect that the revealed preference of the country at the moment is for a more formalised and agreed role for elected representatives. One where MPs conduct themselves, in some ways, like judges or jurors.

Here’s what I mean by this: Where the management of MPs personal offices and finances are subject to a higher level of scrutiny and a significant burden of compliance and monitoring by civil servants, it would follow that – sooner or later – MPs will find that their transactions can be put through an official body, or that their offices will be run with all of the transparency (ho ho) of a PLC. It will save them time and minimise the risk of misinterpretation or hostile scrutiny.

Where MPs may have an office management board that is above reproach (chaired by a member of the clergy perhaps?) that scrutinises salary and rental arrangements to ensure that nepotism and self-serving arrangements don’t take place. Think of equal opportunities recruitment procedures, arms length financial management, audited and published accounts etc.

In short, MPs will become formal state employees in all but name. The processes by which they are paid and monitored will start to mirror semi-state bodies (particularly semi-state agencies).

Similarly, the diaries of MPs and their minions may be expected to be public documents? How far has an MP been influenced by pressure groups or special interests?

Will it be OK for them to spend time in the company of anyone with a personal or business interest? It has been a matter of some comment Gordon Brown went on the same aeroplane as Richard Branson before he turned down Virgin’s bid for Northern Rock. And John Prescott plumbed the depths of depravity in snaffling a Cowboy Outfit before spiking some Casino bid or other a few years ago.

How far will MPs be able to continue to champion specific projects? Already, since 1997, I’ve found that both civil servants and politicians have worked to create a buffer-zone between ministers and anyone working in the field that the minister influences. It has never been harder to meet a minister than it is today – and particularly to meet them in the absence of a civil servant.

The net result of this, it should be noted, has been to increase the influence of civil servants and management consultants in the interests of avoiding bad press. Again, MPs will act within a framework that is set down by the state. More dispassionate and subject to appeal. Under more pressure to be visibly beyond reproach. Like – perhaps – a judge? Or a jury? Or something in between?

And by creating a more legalised policy-making process, it has brought forward our movement towards the American situation – where political lobbyists are no longer people with a background in politics - people who can talk brass tacks and do a deal.

Instead, they are lawyers.

Now, there is a certain logic to say that MPs – as holders of a dignified office – could call upon the state to assist them in professionalising their status. Instead of the sons and daughters of political chums staffing their offices, MPs could have a pooled diary secretariat, a pooled group of professional researchers that can provide a Freedom Of Information-style response to any enquiry on a politician’s stance.

Indeed, this may be the trajectory that the current debate about state funding for politics will follow.

Also, there is the way that MPs go about their constituency business. At the moment, MPs do a number of things that aren’t in their job description, but that are intended to ingratiate themselves with the public. But a judicial representative wouldn’t hold surgeries, for instance, where the public are encouraged to think that an MP will take up their case, or fight their corner.

In order to do their work in the way idealised by Burke in his great speech, they would only need to create a circumstance that allows them to eavesdrop upon the concerns of the public and discern the public interest. Serving the interests of the nation as a whole, MPs must surely only gather evidence to help them redraft legislation? Cosy little deals with locals can't be tolerated in this shiny new settlement, can they?

If they end up with a secretariat that ensures that all work funded out of the public purse is conducted in a scrupulous way, then they will need to have a separately funded political secretariat that will handle that side of life for them. One that is funded from money that they – or their parties – have raised. A strict demarcation between politics and public administration.

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That’s how I think things could go. And is this all a good thing?Are we to have a situation where MPs are asked to show their working on all decisions that they participate in? And if so, would this still make us a good representative democracy?

I don’t think that anyone would argue that this is progress in the right direction (apart from lawyers, and interest groups with a large legal budget, obviously).

And would it really result in more open conversational government? After all, FOI requests result in very fulsome and open responses, don’t they? In reality, nothing would drive thoughtfulness out of politics more than this.

And would this level of scrutiny bring politicians and the public closer together? I don’t think so. Surgeries – where MPs bother with them – would soon stop. ‘Meet and greet’ would be a thing of the past, and the real connection would happen – even more than it does already - though focus grouping, polling and voter-sampling.

This is not a circumstance that will promote anything other than the lifelong professional professional. A plague of Millibands.

This would also deepen the influence of the Electoral Commission – the big brother of the ugly Standards Board of England (and its regional twin sisters).

It would result in more instances of politicians having to clear what they say with civil servants. It would result in a more anodyne standard of public debate where every politician has a kitemark applied to every statement.

We can have a more constrained politics if we want. We – as a public - seem to be saying so at the moment. Every policy decision will be arrived at in a transparent way. It will tick the required boxes in the interests of ‘joined up government’. There will be no aspect of that policy’s anatomy that can be called into question. Lots of valuable evidence that could have informed that policy will go unconsidered because it is ‘inadmissible’. It will be a much more centralised and depoliticised form of government.

If it weren’t already true that ‘it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in’, then this judicial policymaking would ensure that it were the case.

And – as I observed in the previous post here - Dirty Bertie Ahern wouldn’t prosper in such a climate. And Machiavelli would spin in his grave as well. Fewer will bother voting.

Our politics would be cleaner – sure. But sometimes, problems call for fixers doing dinner-deals.

If you are arguing for a more transparent House of Commons, it’s important to understand what you are arguing for. Martin Bell – the self-styled ‘man in the white suit’ isn’t just arguing against something. He’s implicitly arguing for more lawyer-lobbyists and fewer pragmatic politicians.

Update: Here's Freemania on Martin Bell

Politicians who conspire with civil servants to ensure that even the most banal enquiry will receive an opaque ‘official’ reply. He’s arguing for more policymaking by focus-group, opinion-poll and so on. More ‘evidence based policy’ in the worst sense of the term.
And who is arguing the corner of intelligent pragmatic politics?

Almost no-one apart from parliamentarians who are planning to retire, as far as I can see. Yet the arguments are as well known and widely accepted among those that have considered good democratic practice as they are hard to argue for in our current shrill climate.

No-one would now publicly make Machiavelli’s case that a Prince (OK, times have moved on) should embody the characteristics of a fox and a lion. Instead, we have to pander to the fiction that some kind of neutered pussycat is what is needed to ‘regain voters’ trust’.

A civil servant friend of mine told me about the advice that he was given as a young policymaker:
“Never forsake the rock of expediency for the shifting sands of principle.”
When expediency goes out of the window, and every policy has been reached by a process that can be scrutinised and passed by pedants, we will all be a lot poorer and a lot more bored as a result.

OK, I know. Like many of the obsessions on this blog, I’ve said a lot of this before in different ways.

But I think that this pedantic obsession with playing the ball and not the man – the politics of personal conduct – is a genuine long-term threat to democracy and prosperity. As we have seen with the final years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a well-resourced political enemy can effectively neuter an opponent by dwelling on person misconduct.

And it is antithetical to the principles of representative democracy, and it has gone far enough. It is also antithetical to the view that public policy should largely be about ideas. Yet this demand for a more judicial polity will succeed, I suspect, because generating it will provide easy copy for stupid lazy worthless journalists – the most nepotistic and opaque of professions by the way.

It will make media owners, civil servants and well-heeled interest groups more powerful. And it humiliates the people that we elect to govern on our behalf.

1 comment:

mikeovswinton said...

Just think. Sometimes "professional" commentators in the published media suggest that the blogs are full of ill informed unintelligent comment.
Excellent post Paulie. Lots of food for thought here.