The cult of transparency is a threat to democracy

I’m opposed to the Iraq war and to Jack Straw. But he has a point when he says that not all Cabinet minutes should be published.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

This can’t be right.

I was implacably opposed to the Iraq war, and I have been criticising Jack Straw’s authoritarianism since 1997. Yet when Straw blocked, on Tuesday, the publication of Cabinet minutes on Iraq, on the basis that governments need to maintain a space for private debate, I found myself thinking: ‘He has a point.’ It is true that government cannot function if every discussion and memo is made public. Moreover, the ceaseless demand by anti-war activists that every behind-door decision on Iraq be publicised, splashed on the front pages and turned into outrage fodder for dinner parties across Britain, is not remotely radical; rather, it reveals the increasingly degraded, prurient and conspiracy-mongering nature of what passes for anti-war thinking today.

The UK Information Tribunal, which decides on Freedom of Information matters, ruled that the Cabinet minutes on the Iraq war should be published. But on Tuesday, in the House of Commons, justice secretary Straw vetoed the ruling on the basis that publication would do ‘serious damage’ to Cabinet government. ‘There is a balance to be struck between openness and maintaining aspects of our structure of democratic government’, he said. Now, Straw may well have said this for cynical reasons – some suspect that he is personally implicated in the Cabinet minutes – but there is a truth, whether reached purposefully or accidentally, in what he says. ‘Transparency’ is not the same thing as democracy. Democracy does not mean revealing every off-the-cuff comment made in committee meetings or rush-written ‘memo of concern’ sent between ministers; democracy is something more profound than that.

It is crucial that governments, political parties and institutions are able to hold frank and strictly private discussions of an issue before arriving at a public position. This is especially important when the issue is a stinkingly controversial one, such as the Iraq war: on such potentially heated matters it is imperative that ministers can interrogate every issue and concern internally before putting forward a clear line for rigorous public debate. Political leadership is not a Diana-style blurting out of unformed feelings, half-cocked concerns and snatched conversations; it must also involve working out in private what the public line should be, so that ministers can then take collective responsibility for it, and the rest of us can challenge it. Just as I would die of shame if the minutes of spiked’s sometimes expletive-laden morning editorial meetings were made public, so it is justifiable for the Cabinet to want to hold back its minutes, too; like spiked and other political outlets and institutions, the government should be held to account for what it says and does publicly, rather than for its tense, coffee-fuelled discussions behind closed doors.

It is of course true that official secrecy, enforced by such legislation as the Official Secrets Act, has been used over the years to protect the interests of the state at the expense of freedom of speech. However, the cult of ‘transparency’ – which, ironically, Straw and other New Labour ministers did a great deal to institute – is not much better. It can also be seen as a threat to democracy. A totally ‘transparent’ system of government, in which every whisper and row was made public, would stultify political debate and possibly intensify the authoritarian instinct. If ministers and officials thought their every word might end up in the public realm, they would become even less bold and more safety-obsessed than they are at present. They’d become more concerned with back-covering and saying the ‘right thing’ than with putting forward honest, possibly daring ideas. As Martin Kettle points out, ‘Ministers would say what they wanted to be published not what they believe’. Moreover, if Cabinet was made subordinate to the cult of transparency, this would ‘push all important conversations into the margins and the corridors, unminuted and unminutable’ (1). There would be more secrecy, not less.

The continual pressure put on the government to reveal every memo and internal chat about Iraq speaks to the degraded nature of the anti-war movement. Rather than challenge the government for what it did publicly – propose a war, argue for a war, and launch a war – anti-war activists and commentators are pruriently obsessed with the private decision-making processes behind the war. Lacking hard, convincing or principled arguments against Western military interventionism, anti-war activists seek to move the debate from the public realm of ‘what happened’ into the private realm of ‘what might have happened’. They effectively take refuge from the rough-and-tumble of public argument about the war, in which such complex issues as sovereignty, democracy and Western moral authority might be fought over before a mass audience of citizens, newspaper-readers and TV-watchers, in favour of obsessively looking for lies, untruths and potential conspiracies from behind closed doors. Their prurience is driven by opportunism and a sidestepping of the argument.

The end result is that the Big Questions about Iraq, and Britain’s role in the world, have been left largely unasked, as those of an anti-war mindset instead make private discussions and legalistic wrangling the linchpins of the Iraq debacle. In focusing on the alleged privately expressed moral turpitude of individual ministers, anti-war activists have left untouched the public matter of Britain’s moral authority to intervene in other state’s affairs. Indeed, they might even have helped to boost the government’s moral authority on the world stage: through agreeing to explore ‘what went wrong’ in the legal and internal debates about Iraq, some ministers promise to do things right next time round (2). The government should be challenged for what it says and does on the public stage, otherwise we end up with gossip and conspiracy-mongering where there should be serious political debate.

Finally, the idea that duplicitous internal debates and secret cabals are the central problem of the Iraq episode lets those public figures who are on public record as publicly supporting the war off the hook. Thus in parliament yesterday, Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay attacked Straw’s decision to block the Cabinet minutes on the basis that it was such secrecy, such committee-devised untruths, that led an innocent soul like him to vote for the Iraq war. ‘I will take to the grave the fact that I regret having listened to the porky pies’, he said (3). This is where the obsession with private shenanigans over public action gets us: to a situation where even those who gave the nod to the Iraq invasion can blame lying cabals for their own inhumanity. It is testament to the degenerate nature of the anti-war moment in British public life that someone like Straw – a typically illiberal, back-covering New Labour MP – can make himself look sensible and principled in comparison to it.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

In March 2008 Brendan O’Neill looked back on the five years of war in Iraq. Elsewhere, he called the British withdrawal from Basra a media stunt to end a PR war and said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq had turned into a ‘gesture invasion’. James Heartfield said that the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions.Tara McCormack discussed a British merchant banker who was charged with reconstructing BasraOr read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.

(1) Straw is right to keep his head, Guardian, 24 February 2009

(2) Straw is right to keep his head, Guardian, 24 February 2009

(3) Release of Iraq war Cabinet minutes blocked by Jack Straw, Telegraph, 24 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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