Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

3 December 2008

Damian In-the-Dock Green: Breaches In Confidence That Betray a Cynical Political Culture

I must confess to having initially reacted with a large dose of cynicism last week to the news of the arrest and questioning of the Tory immigration spokesman Damian Green. I thought he must have been up to some sort of political skulduggery given the routine assumption that politicians do indulge in dodgy intrigue and rule bending to procure political advantage. On learning a bit more about the case, I assumed that he must have been offering inducements of some kind to the civil servant who kept feeding him titbits on wrongdoing, ‘malfeasance’ and cover-ups at the Home Office; or else, that the civil servant in question was himself politically motivated, so that at least there was connivance between him and Damian Green in breaking the law (albeit a questionable law in many of its provisions: the Official Secrets Act) in order to score points against the government – a government for which, if I need remind my readers, I have the utmost contempt.

Only subsequently, on reading some of the storm of protest and indignation about the affair, did I pause to reflect a bit more about the civil-liberties implication of the events. Even if the police had a reasonable suspicion that Damian Green had been offering the civil servant in question inducements to betray official secrets, surely the use of a whole squad of counter-terrorist officers to search the MP’s parliamentary office and interrogate him for a whole day was completely inappropriate and excessive. Would it not have been sufficient for ordinary detectives to have a quiet word with Damian Green in his offices after consulting with the Speaker of the Commons and the MP’s boss, the Conservative Party leader David Cameron? The actions and motivation of the Speaker, Michael Martin, in allowing the police raid to go ahead are highly questionable. And then there are the implications for the confidential nature of Damian Green’s work and dealings with his constituents, which the police appeared to regard as completely open for them to look through in the search for incriminating evidence. Should the confidentiality of an MP’s correspondence, files and computers not be regarded by default as completely off limits, and only to be made available to the police under the gravest of circumstances and under reasonable suspicion of serious criminality, such as actual support for terrorism, which might have warranted the use of anti-terrorist officers? But no one has suggested that anything remotely like that had been going on.

Then it occurred to me that, in their suspicions towards Damian Green, and in their apparent belief that there was nothing untoward or objectionable in their investigative methods in this case, the police were demonstrating the same sort of cynicism and lack of respect towards MPs and the parliamentary process as I had done in my initial reaction. After the way the political elite rallied round to protect Tony Blair and his cronies in the ‘cash for honours’ investigation, which ended with no prosecutions and accusations of wasted police resources and effort, such cynicism on their part would be understandable. In this case, however, the police’s attentions were directed towards the dealings of an opposition politician claiming to be exercising his duty to call the government to account for its illegal and deceitful doings, and not towards corrupt political patronage carried on with the acquiescence of the PM.

The Damian Green case therefore demonstrated that cynicism of this sort – whether it is that of the police, the media or the general public – can lead to complacency towards and even acquiescence with the government’s use of secrecy and anti-terrorist measures to suppress disclosure and scrutiny of its own dishonest or incompetent dealings. By means of the incident and the subsequent ‘outing’ of the civil servant involved (Christopher Galley), the message was being put out that civil servants who blew the whistle on government wrongdoing – and even politicians that sought to get hold of and release information about that wrongdoing – could expect the full force of the law to come down on their heads. The government’s newly re-recruited spin-meister and bully boy, Peter Mandelson, reinforced this message this morning, I notice: accusing the Conservative Party leadership of sanctioning inducements to Galley (who was motivated by ambition not the public interest, according to Mandelson) and of conniving in law breaking and violation of the Civil Service Code in order to score political points – almost exactly my own initially cynical reaction.

In view of the fact that this was clearly the message the government wants to put out, I find it completely impossible to believe that the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and probably also Gordon Brown himself – who seems to run cabinet government on a Stalinist-style central command-and-control basis – did not have prior knowledge that the police intended to raid Damian Green’s offices and arrest him. Certainly, if Jacqui Smith did not have such foreknowledge, this would in itself almost justify a resignation on her part: in circumstances as grave and unprecedented as these, for the police not to consult her and gain at least her tacit approval would reveal a huge lack of confidence in the Home Secretary on the part of the police, along with ineffectiveness on her part in setting acceptable guidelines for the police in such matters. If Smith genuinely didn’t know about it, it’s hard to avoid the thought that she may not have done so because Gordon Brown didn’t inform her: i.e. he himself was very much informed and sanctioned the whole thing, and didn’t see fit to tell his Home Secretary about it, as he wouldn’t want an unseemly row and was intent on demonstrating who was really in charge.

This is, of course, speculation. But I’ve long suspected Gordon Brown of being a ruthless Machiavellian operator, who’s prepared to use whatever underhand tactics are at his disposal to ruin the reputations of his opponents both inside and outside the Labour Party: this time, Damian Green, by tainting him with the slur of suborning a civil servant from the proper and legal exercise of his duties; last time, by again using the offices of Peter Mandelson to try to get an accusation of improper soliciting of a donation to the Tory Party to stick on the Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne. In fact, there’ve been so many of these personal and career ruins in Brown’s wake that you might almost think it was he who triggered the stories and investigations about the cash for honours scandal in the first place, in an attempt to discredit and even oust Tony Blair. The fact that neither Brown nor Jacqui Smith have felt the least bit inclined to express any regret, let alone apology, about the outrageous handling of the Green investigation by the police can only lend further support to the view that one or both of them knew all about it and sought to secure political advantage from it.

One test of this supposition would be to imagine for a moment how the Labour leadership would react to a request from the police to carry out a similar inspection of, say, the Labour Immigration Minister’s Commons office and confidential files. Do we think for a moment that this would have been permitted? Of course, it wouldn’t. Therefore, whoever it was in the government that gave the green light for the police’s actions last week (Michael Martin, Jacqui Smith or Gordon Brown) was / were, at least in (large) part, motivated by achieving political advantage and revenge for Green’s embarrassing disclosures; and all of Mandelson’s blandishments about upholding the law and the Civil Service Code are a load of utterly futile and discreditable tosh.

Or am I just being cynical again? The point is that the actions of the government in sanctioning (whether ad or post hoc) the police’s actions last week, where there are clear potential political gains for it in doing so, only serve to bring the whole political process and, indeed, the law into disrepute. It is the government that should be setting an example in these matters: it should be completely open about who in government knew, or did not know, what; and in repudiating the police’s disproportionate actions. If it has nothing to hide, this should not be a problem. But the fact that the government has failed to adequately address such questions and concerns can only fuel the type of speculation that I have indulged in here. And, moreover, it is clear that the government did have something to hide, which is why the leaks occurred in the first place; and why the government was, and is, so furious about them.

And this brings us to the hub of the matter: the government comes over all indignant about the leaks carried out by Galley and Green (sounds like a firm of solicitors or executioners!), as if its secrets were all of the utmost importance (hence meriting the deployment of counter-terrorist officers); whereas in fact, it’s obvious they were highly embarrassed and politically harmed by the disclosures. And yet, the government shows cavalier disregard for the secrets and confidential information of its own citizens: whether those of Damian Green’s constituents, whose business was laid bare to the investigating officers last week; or to every citizen in the land, whose personal data has been handled with such gross negligence by a government that feels entitled to gather more and more of it, and to put it all in one place through the ID-card scheme.

It’s this lack of respect and, seemingly, trust for the privacy and honest secrets of the ordinary citizen that betrays the true depths of cynicism to which this government has stooped. The government’s secrets are held to be sacrosanct, even if they comprise a record of misconduct and incompetence. The citizen’s secrets, on the other hand, are to be an open book to the government – and to any organisation with which the government chooses to share, or to which it decides to sell, that information; or to any criminal, terrorist or ordinary citizen who happens to stumble upon or hack into data containing millions of our personal details. What have we got to hide or to fear, after all, from this whiter-than-white, trustworthy and supremely competent government? And if we have got something we’d rather they didn’t know, does that justify ‘the authorities’ in being suspicious that we might be up to criminal or even terrorist activities? Hence justifying the deployment of a counter-terrorist squad to search our premises? Because if it’s allowed to happen to an MP today, it could become a routine tactic to intimidate troublesome citizens tomorrow.

And what is an MP, after all, other than a representative of the people? If the government feels it is justified to treat inconvenient MPs in such a bullying and invasive manner, then it is to us the people that it is showing disregard and cynicism – as indeed it did quite specifically in this instance by allowing the police to peruse the confidential information of Mr Green’s constituents, apparently without any safeguards to the unofficial secrets involved. The reason for this discrimination and these double standards? The government’s job is to govern, and the citizen is there to be governed. So if the government decides it needs more and more of the citizen’s personal information in order to secure the processes and continuance of its governance against mounting threats (the ultimate justifying threat being that of ‘terror’), then it is the government’s prerogative both to appropriate that information and to cloak it, and the use to which it is put, in an ever more enveloping shroud of secrecy. Such as the information the Home Office had gathered on which Labour MPs were likely to vote against 42 days’ detention without charge for terror suspects, which was another of the items leaked by Christopher Galley. It seems that not even Labour’s own MPs are to be trusted.

This is government that sees its primary objective as perpetuating itself and defending itself against the threats to its survival by any means fair or foul. Government that sees itself, not the people, as the ultimate arbiter of its own actions which alone – in its view – can be characterised as ‘in the public interest’; not the actions of the government’s detractors and critics. Government for the government, and not government accountable to the people in the shape of its representatives: in this case, Damian Green MP. The government’s cynical condoning of the police’s actions last week is a sign that it has lost touch with the one thing that confers legitimacy upon it: not its own power but the trust of the people. And from the government’s increasingly paranoid perspective, it is the people in turn that are not to be trusted: potential terrorists all if they question the integrity and expose the incompetence of the government’s security operations and apparatus.

This is perhaps an episode that does justify strong criticism of, indeed cynicism towards, the British parliamentary system. The reason why the government is so out of touch with the people is that it does not have to rely on the support of even a large minority – let alone majority – of the people in UK elections. This is a government that was elected by only 22% of the British electorate (36% of those who actually voted). But that low level of support gave it an absolute majority and, effectively, the absolute power of a monarch, in whose name – and with whose sovereign authority – it governs.

But at the same time – and for all its flaws – this incident also demonstrates the greatness of the English and British parliamentary system: the fact that parliament at its best is not just an assemblage of party clones who slavishly back their government’s and parties’ positions on every issue. The fact that each MP is a free agent: a representative, symbol, defender and example of the freedom of every English and British citizen. And that they can, and do, stand up to abuses of power; even when further abuses are heaped upon them in the attempt to shut them up.

And that is why, despite the government’s betrayal of our confidence – indeed, of our confidential information – I still have confidence in the parliamentary process that England bequeathed to the world.

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

Blog at WordPress.com.