On the eve of publication of the long-awaited Sue Gray report on Downing Street parties, the historian Peter Hennessy has described current British political standards as being a “bonfire of decencies”. A system of government which ultimately rests on the willingness of “good chaps” to “do the decent thing” is going up in flames.
The match which is lighting the fire is seeing that egregious misdemeanours at the very top of government can be publicly identified and evidenced but then go unpunished, while the offender-in-chief “moves on”. If the public’s desire for a blood sacrifice is required, some official or other can be offered up. The public seemingly understands the drill and “moves on” too. There is, after all, a cost of living crisis. Though it seems petty and obsessive to go on about the details of Partygate, the issue matters (as does the wider conduct of the prime minister). Serious damage has been done to the British system of democratic government which we have long persuaded ourselves is a model for the world. And that system is a lot more precarious than we like to think. It runs on respect. What we are seeing is systematic disrespect for the institutions on which the system rests. One is the strictly impartial civil service which has become a political punch bag. Another is parliament, which now struggles to impose even a requirement that it should not be lied to, let alone any serious accountability from the government of the day. A further, crucial institution is the law. Respect for it used to be a given. No longer. And there are surely few more cynical acts than to pass laws — causing mandatory pain to others — and then blithely to ignore the legislation yourself. There have always been people who defied the law as conscientious objectors or through illegal protest (I am quite tempted to join the Right to Roam occupiers). But to bypass the law for reasons of self-interest or self-indulgence is different and damaging.
Democratic decline is relative. We haven’t yet reached the advanced decay of semi-democracies like the USA, where President Trump and his party seem to have established a culture of immunity. Or some states in India where gangsters achieve impunity for their criminality by getting elected and taking over the state. Or desperate cases like Lebanon where politicians simply divide up the spoils of government. These extremes should sound the warning klaxon about our own direction of travel. Democratic decay is quite difficult to reverse. One step is to reduce dependence on “good chaps” and their sense of decency by formalising standards of conduct. There is a written ministerial code, but it ultimately depends on the prime minister to enforce it. The conduct of parliamentarians, in relation to expenses, earnings and the exercise of libido, is increasingly codified. Yet enforcement again depends upon fellow politicians and their parties, one of whose leaders is the prime minister. When fish rot, it is from the head down. Another route is to outsource political responsibility to non-politicians who can hopefully apply higher standards of integrity and expertise.
That was the logic behind the proliferation of quangos and non-government entities in the 1990s. The Bank of England is an important case whose independent control of monetary policy was something I championed.
I am, however, now beginning to wonder how much democracy is left if politicians must be written out of all decisions to avoid scandal and self-indulgence. There are two main ways back. One is by example. After the Watergate scandal which fathered all the other “gates”, the corruption and criminality of the Nixon era was redeemed in large part by the leaders who followed. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter never acquired the halo of greatness but were decent, honest men who respected the institutions of American democracy. President Biden is trying to perform the same rescue act, but may be too late. On this side of the pond, a heavy responsibility lies on the Conservative Party to identify a new leader who appeals to their supporters, but is also fit for office. Surely they can find someone? On the Labour side, Keir Starmer has already set a strong example by making it clear he will stand aside if fined for any breach of the lockdown rules.
The main route back is through the ballot box. There is a cynical adage that people get the governments they deserve. It is a philosophy which gets and keeps in office populists like Trump and Johnson and their ilk in Latin America and Asia. Cynicism begets cynicism amongst the voters who, in turn, vote the cynics back in.
At a time of economic crisis, it would be remarkable if, at the next time of asking, voters do not prioritise “bread and butter issues”. But decency also matters: how can a government which is a complete stranger to the truth be trusted with taking big, complex decisions on the economy? It is to be hoped Ms Gray’s report is more than next week’s fish and chip paper: it should bring Johnson’s administration to an end.
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