Book review - The Blunders of our Governments

Modern governments of all stripes screw up too often.  A new study of their blunders suggests that ‘strong government’, traditionally the great strength of the governing system, is to blame.  Let’s hear it for deliberative democracy.

Stuart Weir
17 April 2014

The Blunders of our Governments,  Anthony King and Ivor Crewe,  Oneworld, £25 hardback


Labour and the Conservatives, as the beneficiaries of the crumbling ‘two party’ system, have invariably opposed the introduction of proportional representation in general elections, out of naked self-interest.  The principal justification that they and a hapless political class gave, and still give, for continuing with first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections has been that, by giving one or other party a disproportionate majority in the House of Commons, they give the country ‘strong’ government.

Many outside the political class and the constraints of partisan party politics, argued that this argument was a myth. At Democratic Audit, David Beetham and I pointed out in several books that what the country needed was ‘effective’ and ‘deliberative’ rather than ‘strong’ government; that the largely unchecked powers governments had enjoyed on a minority of the popular vote led to an unchecked hubris in policy-making; and that governments too often failed to be ‘strong’ when they needed to be.

Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, two mandarins of political science in the UK as well as practised members of the political class, have now reinforced what Democratic Audit argued in a masterly survey of ‘blunders’ in British government.  They have studied twelve domestic blunders, leaving aside foreign-policy blunders, including the two most conspicuous of all blunders, the Suez expedition in 1956 and the invasion of Iraq.  In forensic detail , they examine blunders from Thatcher’s poll tax in the 1980s to Brown’s misbegotten private-public partnership for the London tube – and have added for good measure a quick review of blunders under the coalition government.

Their conclusion is that modern governments of all parties “screw up” too often and are equally blunder prone – “a fact that in itself suggests that there are systemic defects in the British system of government, defects rooted in the culture and institutions of Whitehall and Westminster.”  They summarise the institutional and political weaknesses which give governments the freedom to take “decisive action”, more or less unchecked, and comment that the trouble with the system “in which it is easy to take decisions is that it is every bit as easy to take the wrong decisions as it is to take the right ones”.

They suggest that the system would improve if there were more individuals or bodies--they call them  “veto-players”--able to block or veto initiatives. They say: “Our study of blunders certainly points in that direction. All the governments that committed the blunders we investigated were strong and decisive governments, and their very strength and decisiveness made possible--indeed positively encouraged  [my italics]--their blundering”.  Moreover, “The notion that British governments have a special gift for decisiveness and the taking of tough decisions is largely a myth – a myth propagated mainly by governments themselves. In truth, they prevaricate, procrastinate and defer as often as they decide”. (Another supposed advantage of FPTP--that it allows voters to “kick the bastards out”--may as often be a disadvantage, because fear of losing the next election, the authors suggest, tempts governments to put off tackling long-term “wicked issues”.)

So what else in their view makes our governments blunder prone? The weakness of No 10 as the hub of government; the merry-go-round of ministers moving from post to post; over-active ministers; the lack of effective individual accountability; Parliament’s near irrelevance; the absence of relevant skills in Whitehall, made worse by out-sourcing; and at the heart of the systemic failure, a deficit of deliberation. Democratic Audit incorporated the need for deliberation in its process for assessing the democratic nature of governing systems, in the UK and around the world, and also found it wanting in this country. The first six elements of weakness in the authors’ list of features that make British government blunder prone, set out above,  contribute of course to the near absence of due deliberation (the authors’ survey of individual blunders reinforces this point, almost case by case), but also to a deficit of democracy in the UK.

The power-hoarding regime in Whitehall and Westminster, the instinct of secrecy, the intensely partisan nature of party politics, are all enemies of more inclusive and open deliberation, as the authors note. But at the heart of these undesirable features of government is also a profound aversion, even contempt, for democratic process in a governing culture which has deep pre-democratic roots and preserves traditional practices which embody its very antithesis.

Take for example the idea of “parliamentary sovereignty” which at first sight has a reassuring democratic ring to it. Yet the sovereignty that is asserted is not of a parliament of elected representatives answerable to the people, but of the “Crown in Parliament”, a very different kettle of fish. This is a sovereignty that places an overweening executive in the midst of both Houses and gives government dominion over MPs and peers. The executive controls the agenda of the House of Commons and makes delivering the government’s “business” its defining priority. It is a sovereignty that ultimately places few restrictions on what that “business” might encompass, even after the passage of the Human Rights Act. It is a sovereignty without electoral legitimacy, since elections to the lower House of Parliament are not proportional, and are entirely missing for the unelected upper House (though ironically, vacancies among the hereditary peerage sitting there are subject to election - by the hereditary peers themselves).

The executive’s domination of Parliament is made evident by the shameless survival of the unreformed public bill committees which bear the formal responsibility for scrutinising and improving legislation. The composition of these committees (which are quite distinct from select committees) reflects the partisan, and so pro-government, composition of the House of Commons, and they go through the motions of considering a government bill without subjecting it to serious scrutiny. Their real function is to get the government’s legislation through, regardless of whether it is scrutinised at all and with no real attempt on either side to improve the measure. 

Parliament ought to be at the heart of deliberative democracy in this country, ensuring that the legislation and actions of government are subject to due deliberation and effective scrutiny.  It should be the principal institutional ‘watch-dog’, or ‘veto-player’.  King and Crewe are hard on Parliament, and especially the House of Commons.  They recall the Sherlock Holmes tale of the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time” -– the dog that did not bark.  Parliament, they say, occasionally barks, sometimes “nips at its master’s heels, but seldom bites; and it is, “much of the time, either peripheral or totally irrelevant.  It might as well not exist”.

The trouble is that ‘Parliament’, as an entity or holistic institution, doesn’t exist. MPs very rarely combine across party divides; and only if ‘Parliament’ is construed to comprise of government backbenchers can it be seen as influential and even formidable, as we see now with Cameron being driven off course in his efforts to appease his backbench critics.   Otherwise, ‘Parliament’ is simply the government, writ large.

The Commons has periodically come together to demand reforms to strengthen its role – for example, after the Scott inquiry in 1996 into the arms-for-Iraq scandal, when MPs demanded that ministers give truthful answers and information to the House; and in 2009, when the Wright committee was set up in response to MPs’ dissatisfaction with their peripheral role. Several of the committee’s recommendations – notably for the election of select committee chairs and members by MPs – have been implemented.  But in neither case did MPs dislodge the overbearing executive.  It was the government that drafted the resolution enjoining ministerial truth-telling; and the coalition government has retained control of the House, making only minimal gestures towards the key Wright proposals, that MPs should decide their sitting pattern, and that  backbench business should be scheduled by the House rather than by ministers and party managers.

Blunders is a buoyant exercise that the authors clearly enjoyed writing and is often fun to read.  Nevertheless, the selection of ‘blunders’ – plucked out like low-lying fruit for their tale-telling qualities - does raise questions about what is missing.  For example, they choose Brown’s abysmal public-private partnership scheme for the London Tube for analysis rather than look at the wider range of public-private partnerships in the NHS and education that have placed a heavy financial burden on hospitals, with repayments endangering their clinical and financial futures (one of which has gone into administration because of PFI debts).  We are treated to detailed insider information on the politics of the decision-making, but there is no analysis of the ideological culture that shaped decisions, nor do they reach out to describe and analyse the constitutional foundations that shape the decision-making.

For me the weakness in the exercise is exemplified in one of the authors’ choices of policy successes – described as one of the major policy successes of the Thatcher government – the sale of thousands of council houses at discounted prices to their tenants under the Housing Act 1980.  Their commentary on the effects of the policy is confined to the huge number of sales and Labour’s acceptance of its “irreversible” nature.  There is no question that the policy was a major political coup.  But given the immense social damage that the policy has wreaked ever since it hardly seems to match the authors’ admirable advocacy of deliberative policy-making and their desire for long-term thinking.  Council house sales have been a major blunder, not a “major policy success”.

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