A transparent attempt to resuscitate politics

A new UK government website reveals every ministerial lunch and penny of spending, but it only reinforces the problem of distrust.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics UK

Back in June 2009, with expense-form revelations about moat cleaning and bath plugs continuing to undermine what credibility the UK political elite had, David Cameron, then the mere leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, decided that what the UK public needed was a momentous address. ‘I am determined’, he announced, ‘that, from this point on, myself and my shadow cabinet will do all we can to be as transparent as possible. Only then can trust between the public and their politicians begin to be rebuilt.’

By recent standards of public discourse, this was not an unusual resolution. ‘Trust’, and its lexical satellites, ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’, have rarely stopped departing politicians’ lips since the MPs’ expenses furore broke last summer. Cameron, however, like a reality TV stalwart, looks to have made good on his promise to let it all hang out. Because as of Monday this week, the government’s very own transparency website went live. Delivered with no hint of discernible irony, Cameron said, ‘in one of the biggest blows for people power, we’re shining a bright light of transparency on everything government does’.

So let’s give credit where credit’s due: Number 10’s transparency website is undoubtedly a masterpiece of bureaucratic indiscretion. You get to see each government department’s business plans alongside the constantly updated timetables showing to what extent a policy has been implemented (any slacking will see the relevant secretary of state reprimanded by the prime minister himself, apparently). Fans of flow charts will no doubt be delighted by the staff hierarchies, published complete with salary listings for top civil servants.

If that wasn’t invitation enough for a spot of armchair auditing, the website also allows you to see details of ministers’ meetings, whether and with whom they had lunch or dinner, and any gifts received. Here, for instance, we learn that equalities minister Theresa May was given an iPad by an Italian politician while culture and sport chief Jeremy Hunt had the pleasure of watching England draw nil-nil against Algeria courtesy of FIFA. Elsewhere, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has found such largesse rather more difficult to come by: ‘no gifts received’, reads its entry.

All this certainly makes for a titillating spectacle for party political curtain-twitchers. Yet for all the bureaucratic machinery, from project management to hospitality arrangements, that has now been rendered up for public consumption, the transparency website doesn’t seem all that enlightening. Seeing a car engine in action tells us nothing about the vehicle’s destination.

More importantly, the whole project looks set to be self-defeating, too. This is because the rationale for making the workings of government transparent is flawed. Making everything visible is meant to reassure the public that politicians are doing exactly what they said on their party’s tin. So, if we can see the progress of policy implementation, if we can see exactly what Vince Cable has received by way of gifts, if we can glimpse what Nick Clegg had for breakfast, we might just believe them when they say – and promise – something. After all, there will be nothing hidden: no space for discrete acts of expense-fiddling avarice, no opportunity for greasing palms. In short, there will be no room for hypocrisy. And consequently, we might, just might, trust them again.

Yet ‘trust’ doesn’t work like that. You don’t trust an institution, democratic or otherwise, because there are transparency mechanisms in place to control its behaviour. In fact, far from demonstrating how trustworthy our elected representatives are, a public exhibition of their workings suggests precisely the opposite, namely, that our elected representatives cannot be trusted. That is, if they weren’t being monitored, if they weren’t being watched, audited, checked, so the suspicion goes, then who knows what they’d get up to. That’s the flaw to this transparency obsession: it undermines precisely the trust it claims to restore.

And it does so because, as Norman Lewis observed at the recent Battle of Ideas festival, it takes not trust, but distrust as its starting point. The fetish of transparency assumes, then, that without surveillance, our elected representatives will act contrary to our hopes and expectations. That is, they won’t act in our interests, as our elected representatives, they will act in their own interests, as money-grubbing politicians armed with a sheaf of expense forms. The transparency website doesn’t help to build trust, to use the current quasi-jargon, it enshrines precisely the opposite, a relationship of distrust between citizen and the state. If we’re not keeping a beady eye on business secretary Vince Cable’s lunch dates, who knows what mischief the cheeky little chap might get away with?

Not that public distrust of politicians is a foolish assumption. On the contrary, popular disenchantment with party politics and its seemingly careerist progeny has perhaps never been so entrenched. It’s just that the push for transparency as a solution to popular cynicism towards politicians is, despite the demotic, Citizen Smith flourishes of Cameron, a bureaucratic solution to a political crisis; a crisis, that is, of legitimacy.

The main political parties are simply not what they were. Bereft of anything like the social roots they had postwar as mass parties representing and channelling the interests of specific social constituencies, they are now little more than deracinated organs for the narrow, professional ambition of former student bureaucrats and companyless law graduates. It is this disconnect between the mass of civil society and its political class that underpins what has been reformulated as a crisis of trust.

The problem is that this reformulation of a political crisis as a problem of trust means that the absence of a genuine political vision that the public could support is effaced. Instead, a lack of public interest in Westminster office politics is reinterpreted as a lack of trust, to which the solution is, well, more and more suspicion-inducing transparency measures. The danger, as Lewis noted, is that politicians will become even more cautious, even more unwilling to stick their necks out for fear of missing a policy milestone. This is not about politics being done; it is simply about politics literally being seen to be done. What we get as a result are not leaders, but jobsworths.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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