Year in, year out the same political theatre

Government and parliament in the UK are not doing their duty and consistently weaken the nation. They must be overhauled without delay.

Both government and parliament in Britain are negligent in the execution of their duties towards society. As a result, they consistently weaken the nation. Government has ignored substantial calls for a fundamental overhaul of its operations for nearly a decade. And parliament in its function as control institution over government on behalf of the people fails to ensure the effectiveness of government operations.

Take a look at the following three incidents:

Already more than eight years ago by now, in 2012, at the time of the Cameron government parliament found that the strategy making process in government was, let me call it, “completely unprofessional”, and would harm the nation seriously in all kinds of policy areas including, as parliament wrote in its report, “strategic defence and security review, energy and climate change, child poverty targets and economic policy”. We can take this enumeration of examples to mean all policy making.

One has to take in practically every word of the observations by parliament to realise the severity of the warning: “We have little confidence that Government policies are informed by a clear, coherent strategic approach… there remains a critical unfulfilled role at the centre of Government in coordinating and reconciling priorities, to ensure that long-term and short-term goals are coherent across departments… Policy decisions are made for short-term reasons, little reflecting the longer-term interests of the nation.” [1] A shattering verdict on the quality of government operations and their effects on the UK.

Even if such a stark warning on substantial deficits in central policy making processes in government would have warranted an immediate major review and correction of the observed deficits, over the years nothing has happened, neither government nor parliament in its supervisory role since took the responsibility to fix the operational deficits identified at the heart of policy making. Now the Johnson government appears to function even more irrationally and erratically than the Cameron government. It, moreover, is repeatedly accused of operating in an ethically questionable way, to say the least, more sharply, in a sleazy, if not corrupt fashion.

In the year 2013, by now also already seven years ago, two UK professors, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe,  published a substantial book with the title “The Blunders of our Governments”, describing major failures by UK governments and their causes over several decades. One example is the poll tax under Margaret Thatcher.

In an article on the book with the pointed title, “Why is Britain badly governed?”, a title which in a way warrants a closer look at the operations of the British political system by itself, Igor Crewe writes in 2014: “Almost all of the blunders were gestated largely in-house, within the executive branch… Government did not engage in serious deliberation.” On the work of parliament he observes: “Parliament turned out to be an irrelevant spectator in the policy blunders we examined…On all essential points the members of the governing party in the Commons did little more than support their ministers’ legislative proposals.”

Crewe recommends as a solution “Institutional reforms should be designed to inject a larger measure of formal policy deliberation outside the executive, including pre-legislative scrutiny in Parliament and formal public consultation of organised interests and expert individuals.”

In other words, also King and Crewe in 2013 and 2014 recommended a major overhaul of processes in government, and implicitly, moreover, in parliament. Parliament, Crewe writes, was an “irrelevant spectator” in the policy blunders they examined. Guess what government and parliament did over the last seven years in terms of the requested restructuring.

Example three: Concerned about low voter turnout in recent UK elections – from a high of 83.9% in 1950 to a low of 59.4% in 2001 and around 65% in the 2010 election –  in 2014 parliament conducted an inquiry into how to improve the situation. In an evidence of exceptional frankness professors Martin J. Smith from the University of York and David Richards from Manchester University pointed out that the problem had far less to do with political apathy on the side of the voters largely assumed as a given by the authorities than with the traditional, elitist, disconnected, and unengaging style of policy making by the political system.

They suggested a fundamental approach was required to fix the problem. They wrote: “There is a need to rethink both the nature of institutions and the mechanisms of political participation,” and further, “The emphasis has to be on building structures and mechanisms capable of harnessing the energy and enterprise of the civic arena, or else the sense of drift in the public’s dislocation and alienation from traditional forms of politics will continue.”[2]

Again, an utterly sincere and urgent call for a significant overhaul of government operations was issued. Guess what happened over the last six years, since 2014. You are right, again nothing.

Interestingly, parliament in its report on voter engagement went as far as even venting the idea of a “Commission for Democracy”. If the independence of the organisation is assured, it could well provide the best way forward to ensure the highest degree of professionality and effectiveness in the political system and to ensure satisfactory involvement of the public in political processes. Yet, ever heard of the commission? Also to call on parties, as parliament did in the report, to develop plans for improved voter engagement and to suggest it was ultimately up to voters to “dictate” their preferred approach to the parties at the ballot box appears more than unrealistic, especially taking into consideration that the very problem to be addressed by the inquiry was the fact that 40% of the people did not vote. It is the government which must design effective ways and means to reach out to the people and implement them.

The failure both of government and of parliament to initiate a comprehensive review of government systems and operations on all three occasions in a timeframe of nearly a decade can only be called appalling and irresponsible. Who, in government or parliament, one wonders, does their duty to the nation?

Present government operations appear to be worse than ever before, determined by personal whims and ambitions, they involve bullying, sleaze, if not corruption (questionable consulting and purchasing contracts on health sector equipment, unlawful granting of a development permit in East London). Can Britain really afford to have governments of such quality?

In the light of the infighting and chaos we just witnessed surrounding the departure of Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings and the communications director Lee Cain, MPs are now calling for “order” in government operations. That call appears faint and fuzzy, in comparison to the rather precise demand for a fundamental overhaul of government operations issued by parliament itself already in 2012 and subsequently by others as well. What is “order” in government operations supposed to mean precisely?

What we seem to witness over the years is always the same political theatre, without any improvement in the way things work. Government conducts policy making on the hoof, according to the headlines in the newspapers, as parliament commented in 2012, without any recognisable structure, while parliament complains, without, however, ensuring any substantial and lasting improvements in the way government operates.

But then, yes, one would like to suggest, that the nation, the people, and the world finally after nearly a decade of calls for it, desperately require sincere leadership and a comprehensive systemic overhaul of government operations in Britain. At the same time, however, one wonders in how far the present government is at all interested in doing its duty and in taking the necessary steps to ensure the utmost quality of its operations. Zero chance, one might assume witnessing the erratic way in which the present government conducts its business. Does the UK, like the US, need as a first step to sound policy making a shift to a government of high integrity? Does the Johnson government fit the bill at all?

Clearly, this is the test:

If the Prime Minister truly wants to serve the nation and wants to create trust in his operations, he must now without delay install the fundamental review of government operations demanded  over and over from different angles since 2012. If he does not do it, he fails the nation and cannot be in office. To make the process effective, he must keep it absolutely open for public deliberation and include the widest scope of perspectives, as also King and Crewe demand for the process of policy making.

And evidently, if parliament as the supervisory institution over government acting on behalf of the people does not ensure that Boris Johnson now initiates this review and adopts its findings in the way he runs government, it lets down the nation and its people profoundly. It also does not do its duty.

Looking at the way government operates and the urgency of the matter, parliament as the supervisory body over government should probably take matters in its own hand. It should initiate a parliamentary inquiry on the subject of how to ensure optimal government operations and also on the question of how to optimise citizen involvement in political processes. Ultimately, as the control institution over government, parliament itself must have a well-grounded foundation on which to judge and ensure the soundness of government operations, a foundation which the inquiry will provide.  

One fundamental question which also needs to be clarified is, why, over the last decade or so, parliament failed to ensure that government conducts its business in an effective way serving the nation. One factor appears to be that parliament does not have a clear idea at all on how to control government operations effectively. It deeply engages in the debate on select individual policy issues, but neglects ascertaining the overall performance of government. A second reason for the ineffectiveness of its control over government is likely to be the lacking independence of parliament from government. With the majority of parliamentarians being in the same party as government, parliament is reluctant to fire a government which does not perform. Issues like these need to be addressed as well. Society needs an effective control organisation over government.

Presently the world is facing the most complex problems it has ever faced, even of an existential nature to humanity. In such a situation a democratic nation like the UK by any means requires a government which employs optimal systems and processes in the way it runs the nation. If the two key elements of the political system in the UK, government and parliament, do not do their duty and do not operate at the highest levels of performance conceivable, the nation is in serious trouble. Then it is time for society as the ultimate stakeholder and the highest sovereign in democracy to take action on its own, to form a suitable initiative, to overhaul the operations of its political system and to ensure its optimal performance on its own.  If parliament does not establish a “Commission for Democracy” the public itself must do it.

In any case, democracy cannot mean a free hand for an elected government to operate as it pleases. Being elected still entails the obligation towards the nation to ensure the optimal performance of government operations. Parliament as the control organisation over government must ensure that government employs optimal systems and processes in its policy making.


[1] House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee Strategic thinking in Government: without National Strategy, can viable Government strategy emerge? Twenty Fourth Report of Session 2010–12 Volume I: Report, together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence, HC 1625 Published on 24 April 2012 by authority of the House of Commons London: The Stationery Office Limited file:///D:/Documents/JOB/A%20%20%20Democracy%20Book%20%20Back%20Up%20Information/Z%20%20%20Countries/UK%20Back%20Up%20Gov%20Eff/UK%20gov%20Strategy%20Making/strategy%20making%20report%202012.pdf

[2] House of Commons, Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Voter engagement in the UK, Fourth Report of Session 2014–15 Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report, Ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 10 November 2014, Published Written evidence submitted by Professor Martin J. Smith and Professor David Richards, Item 39 [1](VUK 42)

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