On Tuesday, The Times published a letter from five former Cabinet secretaries – in other words, from all living people who have held the top job in the Civil Service. I think it was intended to resonate as we in the media dusted down old headlines about “sleaze”.
The five were writing to support a new report by Lord Evans of Weardale’s committee on standards in public life. In particular, they backed the Evans recommendation that (in their words) “there is an urgent need to put the key standards bodies, in particular the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, on to a statutory basis”. This would “ensure public confidence in the integrity of our public life”.
It sounds good, and the people saying it are good people. I know four of them personally, two (Lords Butler and Turnbull) pretty well. When talking to them for my biography of Mrs Thatcher – whom three of them served closely – I found them wise about the ways of government and committed to the public interest.
Much the same applies, I can attest, to Lord Evans. As the former head of MI5, he has less direct experience of the workings of parliamentary democracy than do Cabinet secretaries, but he is a man of integrity, intelligence (in both senses) and grit.
As it happens, I also know the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests. The first, William Shawcross, is an acclaimed author and strong-minded former chairman of the Charity Commission. The second, Lord Geidt, was a particularly astute, decent and thoughtful private secretary to the Queen.
So what could be wrong with these wise, experienced people recommending that this wise Commissioner and equally wise Independent Adviser – and their successors – be given statutory power? What better way of cleaning up the grubby world of politics?
I am afraid a lot would be wrong with it. Its effect, though not its intention, would be anti-parliamentary and therefore anti-democratic. It would put British government more in charge of officials and judges, and less in charge of those chosen by the people at a general election.
Lord Evans and his supporters are probably pushing at an open door, however, because the situation feels chaotic. Ministers, especially the Prime Minister, are scared.
As Boris Johnson admitted this week, he has crashed the car. Having decided – in my view, rightly – that the report on the former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards was based on unjust process, he sought a parliamentary way of “parking” the committee’s recommendation on Paterson and reviewing the entire system by which the Commissioner’s investigations operate.
Although he narrowly won the whipped vote on the subject, Boris failed. Little preparation had been done by party managers in the many months over which this problem had built up, so MPs rebelled at the sleight of hand. Conservative MPs, particularly the younger ones, felt ambushed. There was uproar. Boris’s ensuing U-turn was so violent that the car crashed.
Supporters of Lord Evans’s ideas see this story as proof their time has come. How else to clear up the mess, they ask. Actually, recent events prove the opposite. What defeated Boris here was not some virtuous external regulator armed with legal powers, but politics. MPs, worried about public opinion, angrily revolted against his botched job. Seeing this, he dropped it fast. Rough justice, yes – and, I would add, no justice for Mr Paterson – but effective in the way that only politics can be.
This whole, vast sphere of what people think and feel about so many difficult questions cannot be successfully regulated and administered by judges and bureaucrats. Since it cannot, it is a mistake to try. Democratic, adversarial politics – ballot box, hustings, the chamber of the House of Commons, the press, pub talk, water-cooler chat and, yes, even the hated social media – these are the forms which roughly regulate the acts of politicians. That is how, in a free society, it should be.
In his report, Lord Evans notes the importance of the external regulation of politics which has grown over the past quarter-century since John Major started it in the original panic about “sleaze”. He also cites polling that people think standards in public life are lower than in the past. His remedy is more regulation.
But might not the very process of regulation have brought about this ever-lower opinion? Just as our membership of the EU made people despise politicians because we could see they were in office but not in power, so we now intuit that our current leaders cling to office by sloughing their moral duties to unelected authorities, which make them less answerable to us.
Most bureaucrats are nostalgic for those dear old EU days when electorates were pleasingly far away. They seek to preserve Brussels habits against what they see as (I quote Evans) “shifting attitudes” post-Brexit. One of the words often used in these discussions – and by Lord Evans – is “independent”. The regulator, the assessors of public appointments and so on are “independent”. That is seen as an unquestioned good. The word needs examining. Independent of whom? Of party, of course; but also of any relationship to electors.
And who steers the choice of new independent assessors and regulators? Why, other “independent” people. And who are they? Well, they are usually former civil servants, quangocrats and other public employees seldom directly exposed to the icy blasts and raging heats of public opinion. The Evans report explicitly says that “the chairs of standards committees should chair panels for the appointment of independent members”. If such a proposition were advanced by politicians about politicians, we would all cry “Cronyism!” Sir Humphrey appoints Sir Humphrey or – for we live in times of diversity – appoints Dame Humphrieda.
Luckily, we still have high standards of probity among our public servants, but the more their powers stray into the realm of politics, the more those standards will be put under strain.
Policy Exchange, a rare think tank that is sympathetic to the primacy of politics over the power of “the Blob”, recently published a pamphlet on senior appointments within the Civil Service in the wake of the Greensill affair. In its foreword, Lord Macpherson, the former head of the Treasury, writes, “the role of unelected officials merits as much if not more scrutiny [as that of ministers in awarding contracts]. Their lines of accountability are often obscure, if not weak, and they do not face the sanction of potential removal by the electorate.” Amen – and his point has wider application.
The Evans report says that “a system of standards regulation which relies on convention is no longer satisfactory”. It wants legislation instead. An adviser appointed by a panel dominated by “independent” persons would then have the power to initiate action against ministers and to tell the prime minister how that minister should be punished – even, in some cases, to say that he must resign. That is not just replacing “convention”: it is changing the constitution. We shall have reached a situation in which an unelected person can, in effect, decide who may govern.
Is that really what we want? Is it really what a wise public service would want? This is not Iran, where an unelected Guardian Council, guided by its version of divine truth, decides what is law and who may rule. This is Britain, by whose messy politics a free country is preserved.