Saturday, November 29, 2008

Being in opposition: The correct use of Whitehall's concience.

Now here's an interesting one. I've just seen Mick's post over on Brassneck.

Firstly, it's something of a relief that most leftie bloggers have acknowledged the primacy of representative democracy in the Damian Green case.

I yield to no-one in my willingness to kick a guilty-ish Tory when he's down, but there is a bigger issue here: An MP has a moral duty to listen to a civil servant that has evidence of political mendacity. If a civil servant is being asked to lie, or to do something that is plainly not in the public interest, a good MP should channel it appropriately.

It isn't far from being a basic human right for someone to pass on information of dishonesty to an elected politician - if they are really very clear that they are doing so in the public interest. If a minister is lying on a matter of public interest, then it would be immoral to insist that they either keep quiet, or take it up with an official panel of bureaucrats (i.e. put yourself in a position where - if you don't keep quiet, you really *are* stuffed).

Unity has explained this in a good deal of detail here, and this is his conclusion:
"....the leaking of party political information to opposition members falls outside the legitimate scope of the public interest and amounts to political espionage.

I would hope that Green has not been stupid enough to accept information of that kind, but if he has and if, as the wording of one of the two charges implies, he may not only have a been passive recipient of leaked information but actually have taken an active part in soliciting and procuring information of that kind, then not only do the Tories protestations that he was only doing his job as MP ring extremely hollow but we have a major issue of political sleaze on out hand that Green, at the very least, will have problems wriggling out from under and which could easily engulf Conservative Central Office and the whole of its party machine if were to be shown that Green had passed information on to other ministers or to Tory HQ."
The thing is, even this is a bit harsh on Damian Green. If you have a deep throat who is passing info on to you because they, in all concience, can't stomach the way the country is being run, there may - just about - be a defence that you can't be choosy about the info you are being given. Pick up information about dishonesty on Monday. Notice a bit of juicy polical gossip on Tuesday. Meet the sympathetic MP on Wednesday and let him have the lot - why not?

But this is the rub. As long as you have satisfied yourself that your informant is acting primarily in the public interest - that they have come to you with the information because they are worried about the public interest, then you - as an MP - still have a tenuous defence.

However, here is where it can flip over completely. Mick raises an interesting possibility - albeit an unlikely one. The real problem with what Damian Green is accused of here is that - if it goes from a civil servant to an MP - an unburdening of concience, then that is very much in the public interest. But if it is a MP actually running an active all-purpose political informant in a government department, then it becomes indefensible. To do so would be to make the country almost ungovernable. It would massively overstep the mark of legitimate democratic opposition.

It would immediately legitimise covert recruitment of civil servants by The Labour Party in advance of a General Election that they may lose. It would be a declaration of open season on The Official Secret.

I think that Unity is a little hasty to pin this on Damian Green, and I doubt if the Tories in general are that stupid. The only thing that gives me pause for thought are the rumours that Mick mentions - that there may also be a mole inside the treasury.

If - and I doubt if there would ever be anything like proof - The Conservative Party - or a number of Conservative frontbenchers -were actively soliciting political informants within the civil service, - running them in a co-ordinated way like the police run informers - it would be beyond outrageous. It would be stupid and self-defeating, and the consequences for anyone involved in it - at either end - would be (career-wise) terminal.

And - oddly - I'm more worried about democracy here than I am about pinning one on the Tories. It would debase politics itself if any opposition were so desperate that it went beyond democratic opposition and into covert disruption.


mikeovswinton said...

Check out Alan Travis's piece in today's Guardian, p.11 "This is no ordinary Whitehall leak inquiry", which I think you may find pertinent to some of your points here, Paulie, and also to some of those that you have been raising recently about the accouintability of the press.

Paulie said...


Hmm. The plot thickens, dunnit?

Found it:

"The nature of the offence - conspiracy to commit misconduct in public life - may suggest police suspect the junior civil servant arrested last week deliberately accessed documents to leak them.

The police told Green that he was being questioned in connection with "aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in public life". This suggests that the police investigation is now focused on the nature of the relationship, if any, between the suspended Home Office civil servant and the Conservative frontbench spokesman. They will be trying to establish a possible motive."

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