Theresa May. Image, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
If a government is more about what it hides than what it shows, then Theresa May’s dysfunctional administration deserves a monument in Whitehall that resembles a dark hollow tower of bricks that lets out no light.
The link between accountability and transparency is as weak inside May’s misfiring, mismanaged government as it has been in any post-war Westminster regime. Given the warped culture of dishonesty and narcissistic sense of righteousness that marked Tony Blair’s later years in office, the alarm bells should be loud for what currently passes as democratic disclosure.
The business of government is, on May’s watch, none of our business. Rather than “sunlight as disinfectant” – once a stated ambition of David Cameron – May prefers only an illusion of transparency. Her administration’s openness comes with walls designed to hide behind, such as the 50 “secret” studies on the impact of leaving the European Union that David Davis’s Brexit department has refused to publish.
The formal Whitehall excuse? Simply that the government cannot divulge any detail which would impact the deal Britain wants from Brussels. And what is that deal? They won’t say.
This dysfunction, a parody of honesty, was also on show in the faux-resignation letter of Priti Patel to the prime minister. The former international development secretary wrote that “her actions …fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.”
What transparency? Patel got caught holding meetings she kept secret from Number 10 and the Foreign Office. She was conducting a freelance foreign policy operation aided by the Conservative Friends of Israel lobby group. Openness was never in the frame.
A wall to hide behind
The latest wall for the government to hide behind – just as they proclaim “full transparency” is necessary and right – is being constructed by the Northern Ireland Secretary.
Earlier this year James Brokenshire said the political and security context had “changed significantly” and there should be reform of the practice that protects the identities of donors and lenders who give money to political parties in the province. He suggested voters in Northern Ireland would “welcome more information about how their political parties are funded.”
From provisional power already available to him in a 2014 law, Brokenshire could decide to deliver “full transparency” of political donations dated from then. All donations to Northern Irish parties have been recorded by the Electoral Commission since 2014 on the assumption that they will one day be published.
Demand for transparency
Seeking the views of Northern Ireland’s parties at the beginning of this year, only the Alliance Party expressly told him they wished to see the transparency rules back-dated to 2014, as the original legislation specified. However that situation has now radically changed.
In subsequent private meetings, negotiations and exchanges, a new consensus on transparency being imposed retrospectively has emerged. Now only the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wants any back-dating to be ruled out.
All parties except the DUP have told Brokenshire that what they hesitated on in January is not what they now want. Northern Ireland ministers are now ignoring what the leaders of Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, and the Greens have been telling them in recent months. Chloe Smith, the Northern Ireland junior minister, continues to sell the official misrepresentation that only the Alliance want transparency “imposed retrospectively” back to 2014.
Why? Before the 2016 referendum on EU membership, the DUP took a £435,000 campaign donation from a one-man-band organisation based in Glasgow, the Constitutional Research Council (CRC). The money was barely spent on Brexit campaigning in Northern Ireland, it was mostly spent in England, Scotland and Wales.
The Electoral Commission, unable to legally identify the CRC or its chair, Richard Cook, has said nothing. But others have. A record £6,000 fine levied by the commission in August this year over unspecified “failures” to comply with electoral laws, was, we discovered, linked to the CRC. An investigation into the donation is continuing.
Why was the money channelled through the DUP? And where, precisely, did it come from?
The DUP’s version of transparency goes only so far. They want what was previously sealed to remain sealed. And now that its 10 MPs are propping up May’s minority Tory government – in exchange for an extra £1 billion kicked into Northern Ireland’s budget – they assume Brokenshire and the Westminster government are, according to one former NIO official, “sensitive to their needs”.
Questions on Leave campaign
May and the hard-line Brexiters sustaining her weak hold on Number 10 also require protection from further probing questions on how the winning Leave campaign was funded, and therefore on the credibility of the referendum result itself.
The con trick
So, the part of transparency that usually involves scrutiny and accountability? It’s not there. The government’s plan for the imminent legal reform on donor identity, is to deploy an affirmative statutory instrument (SI) in Westminster, which means only a specially delegated committee will get to debate the issue, and amendments will not be taken. When the full House of Commons gets to vote it will be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Knowledgeable insiders suggest MPs will accept donor transparency in Northern Ireland from July 2017 rather than risk losing the chance for another generation. And Brokenshire will conveniently hide behind the wall his department helped build, claiming this is what the people of Northern Ireland want. It is a con, nothing more.
Just as Patel’s definition of transparency was suspect, and Davis’s Brexit department twists the electorate’s right-to-know by hiding anything that might expose its own incompetency, Brokenshire’s idea of transparency is based on nothing but the survival of his party in government. The national interest? Not on the order paper.
Barack Obama, both before he entered the White House and during his two terms in office, insisted that democracy required accountability, and accountability requires transparency. He said there can be no faith in government if it tries to put itself beyond scrutiny. The United States independent legal system, outside of the errant command of Donald Trump, is currently testing that democratic principle to its limit.
A culture of secrecy is equally damaging for Britain’s democracy. Theresa May’s place in political history is already marked out in the dunces’ corner reserved for the most politically incompetent, those simply not up to the job. Near her tipping point, she should now mark her final days by accepting that the walls, built to ensure her own survival, were always going to crumble.
Get our weekly email