Hutton’s ‘transparency’ is a threat to democracy
Should the government be judged according to its actions in the public arena, or on the contents of its gossipy internal emails?
Should the government be judged according to its actions in the public arena, or on the contents of its gossipy internal emails? With the release of thousands of confidential official documents, the Hutton Inquiry has become a sort of political version of Heat magazine, the warts-and-all celebrity gossip sheet.
Around 9000 pages of documents are being made available for public inspection, including many emails and memos from the higher echelons of government. Remarkably, they have all been handed over to the inquiry voluntarily by panicky authorities terrified of being accused of any sort of a cover-up. Now Lord Hutton has dumped the lot on to the internet.
Commentators have been poring over these documents in a state of high excitement, dissecting every little who-said-what-to-whom detail of the government’s internal discussions about the dodgy dossiers on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Many pundits have sought to celebrate the first signs of a new climate of ‘transparency’ in Whitehall as a great leap forward for democratic government.
But transparency and democracy are not the same thing. Indeed the sort of ‘open government’ encouraged by the Hutton Inquiry’s revelations is likely further to degrade the democratic process.
Of course, there has always been far too much secrecy about the activities of the state and the exercise of power. The security services operate in a particularly murky world – one area that the authorities remain determined to keep secret. It is also true that, as discussed elsewhere on spiked, some of the internal documents now published provide us with an intriguing, if unattractive, insight into the workings of New Labour (see Out-of-control freaks, by Brendan O’Neill).
However, there are serious problems with the way that transparency is now being advocated. The private correspondence of politicians and officials is being placed on a par with their public statements and actions. Off-the-cuff remarks made at a closed meeting are being attributed with the same, if not more, significance than commitments made in a political manifesto. Far from leading to more open government, this voyeuristic obsession with the private gossip and chat of political life can only demean democracy, cloud the real issues and make for even less effective leadership.
Whatever one thinks of the Blair regime’s shenanigans over Iraq, the fact is that any government, political party or institution must be able to hold frank private discussions of an issue before taking a public position. Important decisions should not be announced off-the-cuff. Indeed, one problem with New Labour’s policies is that they often appear to have been made up on the back of an envelope, with far too little internal debate and proper consideration before publication.
The more controversial the issue – and there is none more edgy than war – the more important it is that all the angles and questions are explored internally before a clear line is presented for public debate. Political leadership should not mean each member of the government confessing their personal views to the media. It must involve the private working out of a clear public position, for which all those involved then take collective responsibility. The supposed alternative, a totally open, ‘transparent’ system of government in which every stage of discussion is conducted in the open, would be a recipe for political paralysis and buck-passing.
Few ministers or officials would be keen to express a controversial opinion or suggest an unpopular course of action, if they thought their every thought and word was going to be reported in an undigested way. The process of government would become even less bold and more boringly managerial than it is already. The politics of precaution, of covering your back rather than putting forward daring ideas, would dominate.
Ironically, instead of reviving a healthy political culture such transparency would also mean politics becoming more than ever oriented around orchestrated gestures and spin. If those in power had to work on the assumption that there was a direct line from their email to the Daily Mail newsdesk, they would surely become entirely obsessed with polishing their presentation, rather than with presenting a clear line of argument or raising the sort of difficult questions for which there are no quick and easy answers.
The responsibility of a government is not merely meekly to hand over its private emails, memos and diary entries for our titillation, sorry, consideration. It is to show some leadership, by working out its programme in private and then fighting for its policies in public. Political life should not be reduced to a peepshow revealing who sent which naughty notes or made what rude remarks. We need leaders who can raise their sights to a contest between competing visions of the good society.
No doubt there is much for which the Blair government needs to be held to account. But there is a danger that we lose sight of what is important behind these clouds of released documents. The problem with the Iraq war was not that government ministers and officials sent one another undiplomatic emails about it.
Nor, despite the wishful thinking of conspiracy theorists, was Dr David Kelly, the Department of Defence scientist who committed suicide, done to death by any government memo. There is a clear sense of some opponents rummaging around for a ‘smoking gun’ in the Whitehall emails because they cannot come up with a killer argument against the government in public debate.
Now we are expected to believe that the cause of open government is being promoted by an unaccountable law lord sitting in judgement on an elected government. In politics, the worst of governments is better than the best of judges, because at least we can vote to get rid of the politicians. Investing more power and public authority in the likes of Lord Hutton is a greater threat to democracy than any number of secret emails buried in the Downing Street bunker.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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