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Held in Contempt

Dr Hannah White, director of the Institute for Government, talks about the implosion of standards in public life and her hopes for constitutional change

The Director of the Institute for Government, talks to Gavin Esler about the implosion of standards in public life and her hopes for constitutional change
Dr Hannah White

This crisis in British public life is too good to waste. So, let’s not waste it by asking each other unanswerable questions. A stranger on a train last week asked me, “which Muppet do you think will be prime minister by Christmas?”

The answer, unfortunately, is in the question. If we are governed by Muppets – and I have some sympathy with this point of view – then the rotational system for delivering interchangeable Muppetry to high political office in Westminster is itself the problem. The specific identity of the Muppet-in-Chief doesn’t matter, because the problem is The System, stupid. And it’s failed. Britain is enduring a prolonged economic, financial and political crisis because we also face a crisis of ethics and standards in public life. That makes it a constitutional crisis too. The way democracies stop bad, useless or rotten people from abusing power is to have a robust constitution. In Britain we don’t, and in our country the words “constitutional reform” are a bit like “pension planning”, something we promise to think about, maybe tomorrow. Maybe never.

The weakness of the British democratic system is that malefactors of great wealth, and their blowhard and Rule-Britannia-boosterish friends in parliament, witter about the “glories” of British democracy only because it allows them to exploit its many loopholes to fill their boots. Coronavirus contracts? Done. Paid “consultancy” work? Sure. Access to government ministers, free holidays and maybe a nice seat in the Lords? Ker-ching. And at the beating heart of the system is the prime minister, someone who, with a big majority, can override rules and precedents in the name of “parliamentary sovereignty” and ignore or change the rules they don’t like. The great constitutional historian, Anthony King, noted back in 2009 that by the 21st century the haphazard devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the weakening of local government across England, and changing patterns of behaviour by leading politicians meant “the long era of constitutional continuity portrayed in the old textbooks is now ended; that continuity and gradual evolution have given way to radical discontinuity and that the traditional British constitution… no longer exists.”

“However much in principle you might think there’s a democratic case for changing things, the priority in actually changing the system that put you here, evaporates”

To take one obvious example, both British and American systems of governance have a Supreme Court. Beyond the name, there is no real resemblance between the institutions. The US version was set up 250 years ago, codified in the Constitution as one of the checks and balances of the co-equal parts of the US government. The British Supreme Court was invented by Tony Blair seventeen years ago. It could easily be disinvented if it gets too uppity. When the British Supreme Court declared Boris Johnson’s Brexit prorogation of parliament to be illegal, leading Conservative politicians threatened to cut the court’s powers. The Daily Mail described judges as Enemies of the People, emulating those famous guarantors of democracy, the Nazis. Our current crisis, in other words, is indeed political and economic, but our unwritten (in fact, uncodified) British constitution struggles to keep up with the crazy politics and chicanery of the Information Age. And so in search of a trusted guide to all this mess, Perspective turned to Dr Hannah White, the director of the Institute for Government in London. She is author of Held in Contempt, subtitled What’s Wrong with the House of Commons? The short answer is: plenty.

We begin our conversation by noting that anyone who has visited the Palace of Westminster building recently will see that, rather like the British government, it is falling apart. Big Ben lost its bong and was re-bonged after a multi-million pound reconstruction. Unfortunately, the glorious buildings which house the Commons, Lords and various functionaries are suffering even worse damage. There are burst pipes, electrical failures, fear of fires, creaking infrastructure and falling masonry, all of which may accidentally bring about constitutional change by killing some hapless parliamentarian stone dead. As Dr White puts it in her book: “The Palace of Westminster is falling down. Literally. In the decade from 2009 to 2019 there were fourteen recorded instances of masonry falling from the nineteenth-century buildings. In 2018 a chunk of stone angel the size of a football fell 70 metres from the Victoria Tower into the garden below.” The whole place could burn down and “a Notre Dame-style fire rampaging through parliament will look to the world as a symbol of ‘Global Britain’.”

“It was a cheap metaphor,” she jokes, though an apt one for a political system dogged by complacency and inertia. No one fixes the roof when the sun is shining. Instead, short-term and manufactured crises take priority over strategic thinking aimed at solving chronic problems.

“If you dig into why stuff hasn’t happened,” White says about constitutional reform (and also building repairs), it is “factors around incentives, inertia, binary and short-term politics.” Repairing the political system is “never the priority” because problems are dumped into the “Too-Hard-Box”. This is understandable. A politician may only be in parliament for five or ten years and inevitably ask themselves, “what’s in it for me?” Do you really want to close Westminster for the next decade, relocate to some soulless modern conference centre and spend time and money changing the British system of government, when most voters rarely bring up constitutional matters on the doorstep?

Dr White calls this “the incentives point”. For an MP, “once you’re in power and can actually do something about [the constitution], your incentive to change a system that is stacked in your favour evaporates. However much in principle you might think there’s a democratic case for changing things, the priority in actually changing the system that put you here, evaporates.” She also argues that the grand, forbidding Gothic structure replicates how voters see MPs – as a class apart, cut off and different from the rest of us, playing by different rules, because “the architecture and design of the Palace of Westminster were explicitly intended to embed a very specific type of politics – exclusionary, mystifying, hierarchical and adversarial – which today’s main parties have an interest in maintaining,” even if voters are repelled by it.

This is our British political paradox. Opposition politicians have no power to change things until they get into government, at which point they lose interest in changing to a system that can only benefit their opponents. As Dr White says, “a more open, efficient, inclusive and outward-facing parliamentary building (or constitution) would risk changing the culture, practices and symbolism of parliament in unpredictable ways which might not be to their benefit.”

It’s happening now. The Labour Party conference in September enthusiastically backed changing Britain’s antiquated First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system to Proportional Representation (PR). But by October, opinion polls suggest Labour would win a massive FPTP election majority of 100 or more seats. Inevitably, Keir Starmer’s enthusiasm for kicking away the ladder he wishes to ascend to power may soon be much diminished. Some reforms have happened – but then were immediately reversed. In the 2010 election no party won a majority. The resulting Conservative-Lib Dem coalition therefore did move on constitutional change. They created the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) which ended the obvious unfairness of British prime ministers being able to call a general election when they thought they would win. But guess what? As soon as Boris Johnson became prime minister he scrapped the Act immediately, restoring his power to call a snap general election in December 2019 when the polls were most favourable. The result? A Conservative parliamentary landslide, and also a return to the dodgy old practices that are part of the creaking British “system”. These include the almost dictatorial powers of a prime minister with a healthy parliamentary majority to change more or less anything he or she does not like, as Dr White says, and “pass a piece of legislation without any proper deliberation or consultation to think through the merits and the consequences.”

White argues that short-termism is part of the “culpability of the Commons as an institution,” but the bigger fault lies with political parties and also with you and me as voters

Fans of the British constitution call this “flexibility”. Others see it as opportunistic short-termism that has made British politics incompetent, unworkable and attractive to… well, some call them Muppets, who thrive in a system lacking real checks and balances. Consider, for example, the Golden Rule of a successful business leader. First, set an Objective; second, find a Strategy; third, consider the Tactics to implement the Strategy and achieve the Objective. The British system turns this upside down. Our supposedly successful politicians, as loyalists see Boris Johnson, are successful tacticians but rarely strategists (except for personal advancement). Johnson showed a facility for dominating the next day’s newspaper headlines without any coherent plans for next week, next year or the next generation beyond staying in office and repeating his vacuous slogans. Levelled Up Global Britain alongside the Titanic Success of Getting Brexit Done? See what I mean?

White argues that short-termism is part of the “culpability of the Commons as an institution,” but the bigger fault lies with political parties and also with you and me as voters. In the 2020s “the skill that gets rewarded is to be able to give the two-minute interview to the [media] pool journalist,” while there is no reward for “the one-hour, let’s go into detail in your policy positions” interview which requires the politician to justify their strategy at length “and provide the evidence”. The political rewards, in other words, go to the Boris Johnsons, the spinners of jocular fairytales. It’s about “being a good media performer and playing to your party base” rather than offering a grand strategic vision. “The public has to recognise that if they vote for people on (that) basis, they’re the people who are going to rise to the top.” And they do.

Boris Johnson warned us that like Cincinnatus he was “returning to the plough”, forgetting to mention that Cincinnatus was not only a dictator, but also never touched a plough in his life

In Johnson’s case, White suggests, voters were remarkably forgiving of the glib entertainer, deciding “if it’s fine to lie to parliament, we’re all still going to vote for you.” She even suggests that if Johnson had miraculously survived being removed by his own MPs, voters might forgive him because his lying had been “priced in” and the lying “wouldn’t necessarily have weighed that heavily”’ on the public. Last month, the most accomplished liar ever to enter Downing Street, ex-prime minister Johnson, jetted back from more than 100 days of vacation to hover on the edge of a comeback. He was “coming back” not, of course, to offer a genuine public apology, but in the Etonian and Bullingdon Club sense of a comeback, to remind us how lucky we were to have his superior mind, his great wit, his jolly japes, and a few (no doubt entertaining) scandals-to-come – all the sleaze and dodgy associates we once loved, the political detritus that engulfed Johnson like the effluent from one of our many broken sewage facilities. We should remember that Boris Johnson (second-class degree in Classics) warned us that like Cincinnatus he was “returning to the plough”, forgetting to mention that Cincinnatus was not only a dictator, but also never touched a plough in his life. Cincinnatus had slaves or proles to do that for him. How very Bullingdon of him.

I point out to Dr White that Johnson’s bad conduct forced two ethics advisers to quit, Sir Alex Allan and Lord Geidt, confirming that there is no way to prevent a determined prime minister with a big majority from acting unethically and then surviving. Dr White agrees, in part because “most people have no idea there even is an ethics adviser, so if Liz Truss [didn’t] appoint one, then that plays. It’s maybe Trumpian. If you just bluster through for long enough, you can ignore things or undermine things and you’ll end up okay.” It explains why many Johnson scandals “didn’t really cut through” with voters. For example, the scandal involving the Conservative former minister Owen Paterson was, she says, “an egregious case – should you be able to be paid to advocate for a certain interest in parliament?” Even so, “the vast majority of people have no idea what the rules really are in parliament” and therefore did not care about the Paterson affair. What brought Johnson down was that the public did care about illegal parties in Downing Street when the rest of us were obeying lockdown rules.

“Partygate wasn’t just about technical rules that apply to politicians. It was about rules that applied to all of us,” she observes. I wonder, in that case, if voter apathy means serious constitutional reform is a lost cause. Here Dr White is more optimistic, especially about the possibility of a new breed of politician in future, who reflects the background of the rest of us.

Since we do not have robust Constitutional Guardians now, someone much nastier, less indolent that Johnson could do real and lasting damage to Britain

“The average Tory candidate had to spend £100,000 of their own money” to win in a marginal seat, she says, a sum that cuts off most of the population from trying to enter political life. The Spectator’s assistant editor Isabelle Hardman in her book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians puts the figure even higher, at £123,000. “On the Labour side,” White adds, there are also drawbacks to political involvement. “There’s union endorsements that you need and also pounding the streets. What sort of people can afford to spend the time doing that, or have the money to do that?” The result is that a “very narrow electorate” of party activists for both Labour or the Conservatives choose the next MP and may pick people whose values are towards the political extremes rather than the centre ground. This narrowness of the party system might have been acceptable when millions of us were party members but those days are long gone. Labour in 2022 has just 430,000 members. The Conservatives claim 172,000. Back in 1953, according to the House of Commons Briefing Papers (2018), “the Conservative Party had a reported membership of 2.8 million; in the same year, Labour claimed over a million members.” White sees the modern narrowness of party membership as a big problem because “the role of a political party has massively changed [from] mass membership to tiny membership. Yet the party determines what the rules are. The party determines who the leader is, and the person we end up with as prime minister. And we’ve seen how weird and anti-democratic that feels.”

We have indeed. Liz Truss, who for many ordinary voters rose without trace, was elected “our” prime minister by 81,000 Conservative party members, yet not chosen by the British people and wasn’t even the first choice of most of her own MPs. The confected scheme the Conservative party agreed behind closed doors for choosing Truss’s successor in October was in keeping with party “traditions”, but only in the sense that it depended upon the good judgement of precisely the same group of not-like-you-or-anyone-you-know Conservatives who dumped Truss herself on Britain – as well as Johnson, Kwasi Kwarteng, an idiotic form of Brexit and the most damaging budget in living memory, with the resulting ridicule of much of the world. As I write, insanity is letting the same group of people continue to choose the prime minister of the United Kingdom without a vote of the people of the United Kingdom. We are beginning to appear insane.

So, what chance of real reform?

“One of the pieces of work we’ve been doing is on what we’re calling Constitutional Guardians,” Dr White says, meaning a wider civil society political “ecosystem” involving “the role of the cabinet secretary or the ethics advisor within the Civil Service, the Speaker within the Commons, maybe even the media and the police. There are so many bits of the constitution which interrelate and have been put there for a reason, normally because something has gone wrong. If you start to chip away at them it’s not necessarily very visible. A government can come in and tinker with quite a lot. What you might have at the end is a constitution a lot weaker because you’ve weakened the power of this thing, you haven’t appointed that thing, who you’ve appointed to public bodies, [and] a precedent that so-and-so was sacked from the job,” all of which can blight the system.

I suggest that since we do not have robust Constitutional Guardians now, someone much nastier, more ideologically driven and less indolent that Johnson could do real and lasting damage to Britain. White agrees: “What we should learn is how vulnerable the constitution would be to someone with a real agenda. As you say, Boris Johnson’s main objective in government was to be Boris Johnson in government. But if you had someone actively malevolent, you could end up in real trouble because the guardrails aren’t there.” Yet White is not in favour of a written British constitution, if only because it could probably never happen: “On practical grounds, I don’t see how we could get there,” she says. “Maybe that’s defeatist, but there’s so many decisions we’d have to make [that] the chances of embedding assumptions which are particular to one side of the political spectrum are much greater.” Namely, if the other side would not agree, then a written constitution would not work in Britain.

In a very British compromise, White suggests several smaller changes: “We need to codify some more bits,” she says, “putting more things on a statutory basis, [such as] the ministerial code; the adviser on ministerial interests; clarity about the role of the civil service; the role of ministers; how they are held accountable; the responsibility of the Civil Service to act as a permanent impartial service within the state; who ends up being MPs.” She wants “to generate a pipeline of people who are not just coming into politics because of very strong party allegiance, but who might also develop the right skills and understanding of government.”

All fine in theory, but Dr White’s own book is replete with changes in the opposite direction, especially after Brexit. “Take Back Control” has meant in practice more power for the prime minister and the executive, not for parliament. “Despite the repatriation of powers from MEPs in Brussels to MPs at Westminster the overall effect of the UK’s exit has been significant transfer of powers from parliament to government,” she says. “Ministers have accrued broad and deep powers to change the statute book with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. The House of Commons has been largely impotent to resist a massive transfer of power away from the legislature and towards the executive. Over the same period public contempt for the Commons has been exacerbated by scandals about bullying, sexual harassment and second jobs.”

If it sounds grim, the good news is that eloquent and considered thinkers like Hannah White are emerging from the crisis with positive ideas for change. Some will cut through. Most voters want to solve problems rather than create them. The bad news is not just that the Palace of Westminster is falling down, but that the system of governance within it is creaking and unserviceable. Inertia may eventually bring the house down, in both senses. Perhaps, instead of asking “which new Muppet will be prime minister by Christmas?” we should consider how to make parliament a Muppet-free zone. Many good people end up in parliament. Some real duffers also make it to the top. We can blame the “system”, but in a democracy the system is not MPs and an uncodified constitution. It’s you and me. Or it should be.

“Held in Contempt: What’s wrong with the House of Commons?” by Hannah White is published by Manchester University Press

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and author, most recently of “How Britain Ends”

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