March 28, 2007

The Central Institutions of Government

Ken Clarke has been running for the last 18 months a taskforce equipped by the conservative leader to look into the state of British democracy. He along with his committee has produced a first report which looks into the questions of Prime Ministerial power, cabinet responsibility and the role of the civil service. As you might expect Clarke is a bit of a traditionalist- he fears the concentration of power in Number 10 and his main proposals surround the Parliamentary approval of QPM (Questions of Procedure for Ministers- the kind of how to be a Minister guide issued by every Prime Minister at the beggining of his term). He wants cabinet government strengthened and special advisors excluded from cabinet meetings and their role defined, he also desires a civil service act and feels that many of the powers of the Prime Minister should be abolished or handed to Parliament.

There is an interesting issue at the heart of Clarke's analysis. There seems to be a contradiction involved in the way that government works today- and Clarke is arguing for a particular side of that contradiction to be given more prominence but nowhere does he acknowledge the idea of contradiction. Let me explain what I mean. Clarke wants departmental independence as a way to strengthen cabinet ministers and hence the deliberative powers of our democracy. Departmental independence though has withered away for a reason- as Clarke acknowledges in a world of 24 hour media outlets the government slips up less if all communications with the outside world, indeed if most activity, is coordinated from Number 10. You run away then from the danger of different departments appearing to say different things- which creates something that the voters don't want ie splits. The problem here is that good government runs up against the fact that the media and those who consume media stories seem to want bad government with a single mind.

It is at this point that one wonders about the way that modern government is going- deliberation involves complication- no issue is really that simple, go and look at Hansard should you wish to check. Clarke's problem is that taking account of complication, of shades of grey and argument is a necessary part of good decision making, a good government is one which changes its mind, where cabinet ministers dissent from each other without becoming personal and in which the ideas brought by departments to the table are criticised. But that doesn't seem to be what the media and the country want- they want simple clear decisions which take two minutes to announce on the news and two minutes thirty seconds to understand. Deliberation therefore is a weakness for a modern government unless its secret and rigorously controlled from the centre. Mr Clarke's future reports will be interesting- but unless he deals with this contradiction in a satisfactory way I think his desire to install a deliberative democracy will most likely fail.