Accountable Government

by D.J. Webb

Accountable Government

Accountable government is not the same as democratic government. We have seen in recent years how we are still able to vote for governing parties, and yet still see the business of government largely conducted behind closed doors in Brussels and in Whitehall. The democratic electoral mechanism is still in place, but it doesn’t appear to make any difference any more. The reverse could also be true: a government could be accountable, while not being fully democratic. Before the advent of full democracy in the late 19th century, for example, the British government was accountable, in law and to Parliament, a consideration aided by the fact that government was still relatively small in scope and objectives.

The high-profile political issues, such as the EU, immigration, multi-culturalism and the level of our taxes, are really epiphenomena of the real fundamental drift towards unaccountable government, technocracies in London and in the EU that retain the real reins of power regardless of who wins elections.

Iain Martin, writing in the Daily Telegraph, relates that David Cameron has been recorded asking the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood, “Remind me Jeremy, do you work for me or do I work for you?” If he needs to ask the question, then the answer is quite clear too. It reminds me of Edward Heath’s question over who ruled the country: the government or the mining unions? Iain Martin also writes how the Civil Service manoeuvred behind the scenes to get a Coalition government rather than a minority Conservative administration, partly because the coalition government increases the power of civil servants, who have been able to insist that Conservative political advisers do not attend meetings of the policy unit, on the grounds that Liberal Democratic political advisers would need to attend too. Remarkably, in a democratic polity, the Downing Street policy unit is entirely civil service-run. James Forsyth, writing in The Spectator explained how this happened:

This problem has been compounded by Cameron’s extraordinary decision to relinquish political control of the policy unit, and let it be staffed by the civil service. Cameron was persuaded to do this by Jeremy Heywood, who is now the Cabinet Secretary, and who is firmly against the recruitment of more political appointees. They complicate things, he argues, and undermine the role of junior ministers when sent to government departments. To Heywood, the definition of ‘political’ is a policy which both the Tories and Lib Dems can agree on. Heywood also maintains that coalition makes political appointees even more problematic. If Cameron hires Tories for his political policy unit, Nick Clegg would have to hire Liberal Democrats too — and the coalition would have two warring ideas factories. Cameron has accepted this logic. The Prime Minister also, I’m told, believed that a civil servant-run policy unit would be able to recruit better people. He frequently frets that there are not enough high-quality Tories to fill his Downing Street.

Who is the Cabinet Secretary anyway? David Cameron is Minister for the Civil Service, and the Cabinet Secretary is merely an administrative assistant to him. Civil servants are now said to routinely come up with policy options for ministers that are contrary to the stated aims of the Coalition government. Even worse are claims that Gus O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary, helped to block full publication of the details of the spending by senior civil servants on government credit cards, including spending on French lessons, food mixers and general wining and dining. He was quoted as describing such publication as “a poor use of resources”. But why was his opinion of the whether this is a good use of resources relevant at all? His job was simply to implement the policies determined by the elected government—not to decide them for them. It was reported that the Foreign Office was unresponsive to William Hague’s orders during the Libyan crisis. More recently, a review has been ordered into the three-week delay in informing David Cameron of British diplomats’ suspicions that a British businessman, Neil Heywood, had been poisoned in China. Civil servants also routinely help themselves to public funds: in 2010, David Hartnett, the (thankfully former) permanent secretary for tax at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs charged a jolly to India to the taxpayer. The trip, with one colleague, cost us £8,400, allowing him to make a 35-minute speech. His job was to oversee tax in the UK; talking at a conference of Indian accountants was a long way from his job description. I don’t understand why expense claims of this nature do not lead to criminal charges.

It seems obvious that the civil service regard themselves as the real government, with the politicians merely fronting their government. Yet such an interpretation of the British constitution is at odds with the Common Law, and at variance with any ability of the UK to remain a free state. I despair when I read that Gus O’Donnell has resigned as Cabinet Secretary, but is now a “Life Peer”—let me rush to state that being a Life Peer does not make him a member of the nobility—and is even one of the possible candidates for the position of governor of the Bank of England once Mervyn King steps down. Before his resignation and while still Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph that amounted to an intervention into the question of Scottish independence, saying he expected Scotland to become independent within the EU. Given that most Scots are not seeking independence, this was an extraordinary foray into politics from someone who has not stood for election. The Old Boys’ Network is not, as it might have been previously, the network of Etonians and Harrovians, but rather the insider club of public-sector grandees who are running everything. They drift from one senior position to another.

Similarly, the row over the deportation of the Jordanian militant, Abu Qatada, reflects the drift of the levers of government out of the hands of the elected Executive. There is clearly no “right” to gatecrash another country, but our decision to allow the Strasbourg court oversight of our judicial system has brought unaccountable technocrats sitting on judicial benches into the equation. Surely, if the government decides the man is a menace, he can be removed forthwith? If the judges stand in the way, why not resolve the issue by Order in Council, whereby the Queen uses her Reserve Powers? The only reason why this is not done is that civil service strongly favour technocratic rule, which includes the EU bureaucracy, Whitehall and the whole panoply of judicial interventions in administrative matters.

The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has said on this matter “you certainly can’t have your parliament pass a vote to reverse a judgment in a court of law”, affirming that courts are meant to be unaccountable while failing to address the question of whether the courts should be involved in preventing deportations of people who aren’t British citizens in the first place. This amounts to a fundamental redrafting of the constitution, because the courts are accountable to the Crown under the English constitution. Laws are made by the Crown in Parliament, and the Queen also oversees the judiciary in her office as Fount of Justice. The highest court in the land, which always used to be the House of Lords, was meant to be a committee of the House of Lords, which, as Lord Sudeley has pointed out, could opt to dismiss the law lords and hear cases itself, thus showing the supremacy of the Crown in Parliament over the judicial system. In the final analysis, judges could be impeached at the bar of the full House of Lords. There was no “separation of powers” in the English constitution. Arguably, separation of powers in a written constitution is purely symbolic—e.g. the US system and its overbearing Supreme Court shows clearly that the judicial elite is merely part of the wider political elite and therefore fails to uphold the constitution—and so it is unclear how a separation of powers could really prevent an elite from getting its way. In the English constitution, the Queen was meant to uphold the constitution, and when the constitution worked well, politicians and judges would refrain from overstepping the bounds, not putting the monarch in a position where she had to consider intervening to uphold the constitution. Kenneth Clarke is no doubt delighted that the House of Lords as a judicial body has been replaced by the Supreme Court, thus removing it from parliamentary supervision, as part of the overall package of reforms, including subjection to European judges, which prevents the Crown in Parliament from exercising a sovereign role.

A heavy dose of cynicism over elected politicians is in order, but the only way to have a free country is to have an accountable government, an administration and judiciary responsible to Parliament. David Cameron can be turfed out; Jeremy Heywood can’t and neither can the judges, or at least, not easily. The sense of entitlement that governs the civil service became clear when Brodie Clark, head of the absurdly named “UK Border Force”—an organisation that fails to protect our borders—was forced out for lax controls, and then had the impudence to sue for compensation, trousering more than £100,000 in the process. Clearly, senior civil servants should be accountable to the elected government, and should be dismissed if they fail to implement the policies laid down by the Executive. In no circumstances should any compensation payments be paid.

I would like to see the following policies implemented:

  • Under no circumstances should civil servants attend cabinet meetings.

  • Civil servants should not be employed as press officers to run their own “spin” for government policies.

  • The central policy unit should be entirely staffed by politicians.

  • It should be a criminal offence—call it “bureaucratic fraud”—for civil servants to attempt to dictate government policy.

  • We should withdraw from the EU.

  • All laws should go through Parliament. There should be no statutory instruments or decrees signed by minister. No regulations should be handed down by the civil service. There should be no laws other than Acts of Parliament and very restricted scope for local authority by-laws.

  • Civil servants should be allowed no expenses and prohibited from using government credit cards.

  • Civil servants should never get knighthoods or peerages, and those already handed out should be cancelled.

  • The correct boundaries of judicial interpretation should be re-established. Judges who over-rule Acts of Parliament are contravening the Bill of Rights, and those who seek to prevent effective executive actions in areas such as deportation are also wilfully overstepping judicial limits, as the executive is fully entitled to defend our borders. I call it “judicial fraud” and it, too, should be a criminal offence.

  • The Supreme Court should be closed down and replaced by Law Lords. Judges who have served in the Supreme Court should be dismissed.

This country is crying out for a reduction in the size of the state, not merely for economic reasons, but because the whole character of state-society relations changes when government spending is such a high proportion of GDP. We have imperious government, where once we had effective, non-political, behind-the-scenes limited government. It seems the Common Purpose organisation has trained thousands of civil servants in how to effect a technocratic power grab. That organisation needs to be closed down and a full investigation conducted into abuse of power by everyone who has attended its seminars. But the sad thing is that clandestine organisations are not needed to advance the technocratic agenda in the UK today: people like Gus O’Donnell, Jeremy Heywood and most of the high court judges are operating openly and in public, attempting to suborn the constitution and accountable government. They need to be stopped in their tracks.


  1. I doubt that any reform approach can work. I fear that we need some modern day Hercules to reroute the Thames through the Palace Of Westminster, and wash away all the centuries of accumulated filth.

    Sean adds: For some reason, this comment found its way into the pending file. Since we don’t moderate comments, I don’t know how this happened.

  2. I think the point has been made here before, that the rules are whatever those in charge say they are. Consequently, as Ian B says, reform is unlikely to effect any real change.

    What we need are people (politicians and civil servants) who respect the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Complex, overbearing regulation, and blind enforcement of rules no matter how absurd, is surely largely responsible for where we are today.

  3. An illuminating post that roasts old chestnuts. This time however it offers possible solutions. I even found myself checking for gross error. Then along came two comments reminding me that the civil service is run by canny time-served professionals quite happy to leave things the way they are. Power does often corrupt.

    Ian’s right of course and I too predicted how the Thames might soon be washing the the fallen stones of a broken Palace of Westminster. It was made during a recent conversation with our so-called ‘Justice Minister’. Instead of telling me why he thought I was wrong however he became quite cross. (When you can see that the hole in your boat is big enough to sink it, it’s natural to become a little short with those who do little but point)

    Perhaps a more do-able way forward than the diverting of Thames water might be achieved by kicking out (literally) the people who presently run what is probably the most influential one-sided brain-washing department world-wide. There’s a fair chance then, I believe, that more of our smarter voters will re-engage with politics (oil essential to keep the wheels turning).

    ‘Massively’ biased the man said didn’t he? That’s a massive word to work with isn’t it? Yet, curiously, very few media reporters want to, or dare… and right there, it seems to me, is yet another problem to add to this crippled and dying nation’s list.

    Another man said: Do what you may do, do what you may… but whatever it may be I fear there’s nothing to repair – so be beginning, be beginning to despair.

  4. This is silly. Democracy is as dead as monarchy. The people no more rule than royalty does. Nor, indeed, are they capable of ruling. If we restricted the vote to white male taxpaying heads of households, we might get a parliament with the will and capacity to exercise power. The median voter does not work, and most of those that do work, can only perform simple tasks that require strict supervision. Obviously, with such an electorate, what has happened, will happen.

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