Out Damned SPAD: The Reassertion of Democracy (with apologies to the Bard)

December 6th, 2020

I was pleased when Messrs Cummings and Cain departed Downing Street recently. This was not because of anything they had done, not done, believed in or not believed in during the period of their appointments as advisers at our expense but because they were not accountable to the electorate in whose name, through government, they purported to act

While there have always been advisers to those in power it seems that over the last 20-25 years we have seen their number, visibility and influence increase substantially without commensurate increase in their accountability. It is of course also true that we have a civil service and a military service, each also unaccountable to the electorate, however their position is (at least in principle) one of political neutrality; they serve equally whichever set of politicians happen to be in power. They may test, question and argue about matters of policy and its implementation but they are not, or should not be, the progenitors of policy.

Why does this accountability matter?

We, the electorate in a ‘simple majority, first past the post’ electoral system have the periodic opportunity to say to our elected politicians (who remember govern with our consent) ‘we don’t like what you are doing and we are going to vote for somebody else’.

The UK is a place where we grant permission to a small group of people to govern us, to coerce our actions and behaviour. We grant that permission on a time-limited basis while to ourselves we reserve the right to change anything that is done by granting that permission to a different group of people at the next opportunity. Through this process, we govern ourselves by choosing our governors.

Special advisers are neither elected nor neutral, if we like what they are doing we cannot demand more of it, if we don’t like what they are doing we cannot stop it.

Special advisers are the favourites of politicians chosen, perhaps because they have good ideas, perhaps because they are willing to say, and do, things with which the politicians are unwilling to say and do, perhaps as acts of preferment or fulfilled political obligation. However the appointment comes about, the legitimacy of their contributions is questionable because they and their ideas are not directly tested through the electoral system.

Any individual wishing to influence the politics of the country must have the right to do so through the electoral process. Their ideas should be explored and tested through debate and sanctioned, or not, by the election of the individual to political office. Unwillingness to test ideas in this way must be regarded as undemocratic.

This view has a corollary for electors. If we demand of special advisers that they must expose their ideas to electoral scrutiny we must demand of ourselves that we turn up and vote! Democracy is fragile, we must invest ourselves in it if we are to ensure it remains invested in us.

That, quite conveniently, raises the second point of this blog. If we, the electors must vote then so must politicians.

As I recall, the purpose of the opposition is to oppose, not necessarily to defeat the proposals of government (though that is of course a legitimate action) but to test and improve those proposals through exploration and debate. This might, and often does, include improving what is proposed in order to reduce harms or provide additional or different outcomes.

While, on any given topic, we must respect the right of an individual to abstain from voting (they may for example believe that they do not know enough or be conflicted in some way) it surely cannot be appropriate for a whole party? However, when the outcome of what is being voted on will have profound implications for the whole country, it is an act of negligence to refuse to participate. Ultimately, what is the point of a politician who does not vote on matters of national importance? Vote for if you believe it, vote against if you don’t – it seems simple enough!

It was notable in the recent parliamentary vote that one party chose not to participate, apparently preferring to score a party-political point than to fulfil its obligations. It is to be expected in the coming weeks that there will be more such votes, not just on the next round of Covid restrictions but on various matters concerned with the terms of the exit of the UK from the European Union. All this comes at a time when the maintenance of full parliamentary participation is made more difficult by the constrained circumstances under which parliament is meeting. The matters being debated are of existential importance, to the UK as a whole, to the restoration and the continuation of our freedoms both domestically and internationally.

It cannot be acceptable for any politician to abstain from voting on such matters. It does not matter whether or not they can defeat the government or overwhelm the opposition, politicians must, quite literally, stand up and be counted.

Democracy relies on an electoral process through which we choose others to trust with our governance. We, the electorate, must participate in that process to ensure its legitimacy and they, the politicians, must respect that legitimacy by fully participating both in the debates and the votes that ensue.

The reassertion of democracy is overdue by electorate and politicians alike.