Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

I reluctantly agree with Jack Straw

Jack Straw's decision to veto the release of cabinet minutes in the run up to the Iraq war is causing some consternation at the moment. However, I agree with his decision. There is an understandable desire from the public and some politicians who are not in government to have this sort of thing released but it would be wrong to do so. What would end up happening is that cabinet would move away from being the forum for open debate and discussion and instead the decisions would be taken away from there and then rubber stamped by cabinet. It would ultimately lead to less openness, not more.

I know that some people will be thinking that this happens anyway at the moment, and Tony Blair's sofa tendency bears this out to an extent, however it would get much, much worse if information was regularly released as was being proposed.

There is certainly a case for reducing the 30 years rule as I have blogged about previously, but the minutes being referred to here are only from 6 years ago. That is too recent and many of the protagonists are still in office including the Prime Minister. It would set a dangerous precedent that would ultimately be to the detriment of government in this country.

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of not only defending Jack Straw but also to be in favour of censoring the release of information. Even though it goes against the grain there are strong reasons for supporting this veto.


Lee Griffin said...

My understanding was that the Information Tribunal stated this wouldn't set a precedent and that it was (as with all) judged on an individual basis.

Given that I don't see why it should impede on the "openness" of cabinet meetings, though that in itself sounds too much like an oxymoron for me!

Mark Reckons said...

But the mere fact that it had happened would have set the precedent. I am not talking about in some sort of narrow legal sense. I mean in the sense of all current and future cabinet ministers would then know that their supposedly confidential for 30 years discussions could be in the public domain in a much, much shorter space of time, especially on controversial issues, and hence they will ultimately modify their behaviour to fit this new reality. This modified behaviour would not result in better government.

I am not saying I am happy about this. I am saying that vetoing the release is the lesser of two evils and that it why I support it.

Lee Griffin said...

I really can't say I agree. It may result in better debate when exceptional issues such as going to war come up (through better tact and language), but it is hardly likely to change the outcome. Especially as this is an exceptional case.

I really don't feel that it's a bad thing for the cabinet to realise we could be actually hearing their views/stances on extremely controversial issues such as going to war. After all, would you say all of our house of commons activity is detrimented by the public being able to watch and read about exactly what was said?

Oranjepan said...

I, for one, think that all cabinet meetings should be televised.

I think this would force governments to up their game by placing more pressure on parties to demonstrate their unity and substance, rather than being able to merely assert it through gritted teeth.

Why should the government preserve a privilege which the House of Commons has relinquished (and improved as a result of doing so)?

Mark Reckons said...

I can see that in general (judging by other blogs and frontline politicians comments) amongst Lib Dems I am in a minority on this one.

Lee - There is merit in what you say but in order for it to work, the entire structure of cabinet government would have to change. At the moment, in theory at least, ministers can argue behind closed doors for their position on something, but once the decision in taken they need to fall in behind the government line, or resign. There is usually no way around this (although there is the odd exception such as the dispensation given during the 1975 referendum on joining the EC by Wilson). If there was a chance that these deliberations would become public, then it would be ridiculous for a minister to be publically arguing for a case which is was clear to everyone from released minutes was not what they actually thought. Collective cabinet government in this way has strengths and if we are to change it, there needs to be a fully thought through alternative, because that would be the end game of releasing cabinet minutes in the public domain.

Oranjepan - the same sort of thing applies to your comment but in an even more extreme way. Without fundamental reform of the current system, all that would happen is that cabinet would become a rubber stamp for decisions already taken elsewhere and the real debate would take place in kitchen cabinets or other cliques away from formal cabinet.

Oranjepan said...

I accept your argument, but I disagree with it.

Cabinet would not be a rubber stamp as the natural limitation of time means that opportunities for further action would be lost if agreement had to be prearranged, and any career politician worth their salt would not waste the opportunity to advance their cause because they would know that the public (including axe-grinding professionals in the press) are watching their every move (or lack thereof). If it became obvious that the meeting was being circumvented then further questions would obviously be asked.

With openness we would see a realignment of political loyalties where blackmail, bullying and a raft of other nasty and corrupt political devices could no longer be used to enforce loyalty - politicians would agree on the issues or be forced to explain their reasons.

At the very least the voting public would have an additional layer of information upon which to base our judgement.

Debate is the same wherever it occurs, whether on a blog or in high office - the best results come from the most honest behaviour.

Mark Reckons said...

I have to say this whole debate has made me think more deeply about this.

Usually, I am all for reform of outmoded and jaded political structures and your argument has a lot of merit. I do feel though that in reality the results you anticipate would not happen.

I agree that the best results come from honest and open debate but we are so far from this happening at the top level that it is unrealistic to expect that something like televising cabinet would result in much more open government.

It gives me no pleasure to say this I should add and if I thought it would work, I would be 100% behind it.

I feel that time is much better spent on other structural reforms that definitely would make things much better such as a written constitution, a fully elected second chamber and STV for the House of Commons.

Oranjepan said...

OK, I'm being optimistic, but there's just not enough time in the day to spend so much trouble trying to keep the decision-making process in the shadows.

I also think putting several cameras in a room is pretty easy work when compared to sorting out our constitutional mess (we have a written constitution, it's just that it's written in so many different places that it's no longer in the preserve of ordinary members of the public!).

The positive PR to be gained from opening up govt far outweighs cost of any structural evolutions that will be made as a consequence - at a stroke it would double the number of weekly political set-pieces for the public to engage with and create a means to fundamentally reshape the bureaucracy.