Have you ever wondered, as I have, why newly elected United Kingdom Governments start off with so much promise – at least to the section of the electorate who voted for them – but, all too quickly their resolve seems to fade and five years of bland tinkering round the edges of our social, legal and international problems inevitably follows? Are you tempted to wonder, as I have, whether your effort to attend your local polling station was really worth the time which you could have been spending more productively in your local pub deciding between a pint of the guest beer or a 250 ml glass of wine?
The obvious culprit is the “Sir Humphrey” factor. Ministers, especially Cabinet Ministers, are held in check by the Senior Civil Servants of their departments. In theory, the wishes of the Minister in advancing his Government’s policy are paramount but, in practice, Senior Civil Servants are servants in name only and three centuries of custom and practice have defined their rôle as defending the status quo at all costs and only permitting change to take place at a painfully slow pace to avoid upheaval. I was a rather lowly Civil Servant for many years and I can assure you that my colleagues and I regarded those excellent TV series “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” as documentaries.
While “Sir Humphrey” has a lot to answer for he is not the only culprit nor, indeed, the primary one.
The pinnacle of representative democracy as we have it today is Government by a Cabinet bound by Collective Responsibility. There are many advantages of this system. It can provide apparently stable government where Ministers air their differences with each other behind closed doors, come to a decision and present an apparent united front when implementing and defending that decision. It may give an impression both to opposition at home and hostile intent abroad that the UK Government is united and determined.
In relatively stable times, therefore, Cabinet Government can work well if stodgily. However, in times of great upheaval, such as we have now, Collective Responsibility implodes. There is no possibility of Ministers all agreeing on the way forward on multiple issues. On matters such as BREXIT, immigration, devolution and social upheaval the main political parties no longer divide against each other but the fault lines run through the middle of each party. This clashes head-on with the party orientated system of representation we have in our Parliament.
Our press and media organisations, who, incidentally, have become lazy and incompetent in recent years, are conditioned to equate open debate between Ministers as a sign of weakness in Government and concentrate their efforts on reporting feuding personalities rather than looking at the substance of the arguments. Very many of our MPs play to the same rules and, far from acting as the representatives of the people who elected them, see themselves as servants of their parties. The real winners are the Senior Civil Servants who can practice the art of divide and rule and put a break on change. The great upheaval of the referendum “Leave” result must be horrifying anathema to many of these mandarins.
So how, in this system, do voters exercise democratic control over what decisions are made on their behalf? The answer is they cannot. Once they have voted for their MP their input is at an end for the next 5 years. With honourable exceptions, MPs act as agents for their parties either in its governing of the voters or its campaigns to oust the present Government and replace it with their own party. Meanwhile, Cabinet Collective Responsibility stifles debate right at the top of parties and the views of the voters no longer count for anything until the election comes round again.
Representative Democracy has failed and needs replacing with a much more Direct Democracy system. This will not happen overnight. We are stuck with the present system at least until 2022. But there are moves that can be made now.
The resignation of International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, highlights the failings of Cabinet Government in the present day. Priti Patel has been brought to book over meetings with Israeli Government Ministers and officials allegedly without informing Foreign Office Civil Servants nor (horror of horrors) bringing one of them with her to her meetings in Israel.
No doubt Priti Patel recognises what the vast majority of UK citizens probably recognise but most of the political bubble members do not. It is high time that our country started looking after its own interests in international affairs and acknowledged the vital service Israel does for the civilised world by being a beacon for democracy and scourge of tyranny in the Middle-East region. Rather than shamefully joining the chorus of antisemitic condemnation of Israel and its efforts to ensure its survival the UK should be actively supporting that country as the one reliable ally of freedom and democracy between the Mediterranean Sea and the North West Frontier of India. Priti Patel was reportedly seeking to provide assistance to the Israelis for their humanitarian work in the Golan Heights area on the border with war torn Syria. Our Foreign Office persists in the myth that Israel does not have a right to that territory. No wonder she wanted to keep its Civil Servants well in the dark. Once again, it is the archaic rules of self perpetuating power systems that ignores the views of the people and follows its own intrigues and machinations.
What should happen here and now? Up until today I have hoped that Theresa May would remain as Prime Minister for the sake of the UK following its people’s wishes and successfully leaving the European Union. However, I do not think this is now possible. I would urge those within the Conservative Party who are pushing for a quick and solid BREXIT solution to now persuade Theresa May to stand down and call for a new Tory leadership contest. I would also urge those Conservatives to ensure that Theresa May remains as Prime Minister in the interim and does not appoint an unelected interim occupant of Number 10.
I am unlikely to be a person of great influence in the modern Conservative Party but, just in case The Corner 56 is compulsive reading for the present cabinet, I would urge those who can influence the proceedings that all put personal ambition aside and do all they can to ensure that Priti Patel is the front runner for the leadership.
Then I suggest that we start moving towards a more open and truly representative democracy by revising the rules that require Ministers to keep Civil Servants informed of their activities on behalf of those who elected them and a much looser system of Cabinet Government without Collective Responsibility be introduced.