Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Is there a better way than "Collective Responsibility"?

I have written in the past about how frustrating I find it that government ministers (and often shadow ministers) won't answer questions and how they speak in an anodyne sometimes meaningless language that can be almost impenetrable to anyone outside the Westminster village.

Of course what happens eventually is that ministers leave office and then in their post-political careers you often find that they are interesting people with interesting views and opinions about things. Almost the exact opposite of how they seemed when they were in office.

There are various reasons why our system of government causes this state of affairs but the main one is the principle of "Collective Responsibility". This is whereby all members of the government take responsibility for the decisions of that government. It is supposed to give us strong and clear government. It is the system we have used for hundreds of years with only a small number of temporary deviations (e.g. Wilson allowed members of his cabinet to campaign for and against membership of the EEC in the 1970s). It is also used by many governments throughout the world.

From my perspective though, I wonder if this way of doing things is fit for purpose any more. Here are a few negative consequences of collective responsibility:
  • Ministers find it difficult to answer questions put to them. I can understand how hard the strait-jacket of CR must make it for ministers. They are asked questions but sometimes they are not exactly sure what the government line is or exactly what their colleagues may have said so they waffle or give an answer that is non-committal. Or they use well learned tactics to shift the ground onto something they are comfortable answering and answer this instead. It takes considerable intelligence and talent to be able to navigate this sort of minefield but isn't this ultimately a waste of time and energy that could be better spent? We find out eventually what ministers really thought in their memoirs or through other means. It's a facade that we all know exists and they know we know. And we know they know we know. Etc.
  • Interviewers pick at ministers in order to try and provoke a "gaffe". Interviewers often know where the fissure points are in government and which ministers may not be "fully on board" for certain policies so they will try and trap them into saying something that is not 100% consistent with something one or more of their colleagues has said previously. Then this is pounced on as a "gaffe". I can see that sometimes this could serve a purpose if a policy is weak or ill-thought through and the interviewer is trying to expose this but more often than not it is just a game of cat and mouse between interviewed and interviewee. Experienced politicians will not fall into these traps but they do it by again, speaking in an impenetrable language.
  • We don't get to know what our elected representatives really think about things. We voted for them. They are often intelligent people who have risen to the top of their profession. They are supposed to represent us and yet what we get is anodyne waffle because they are forbidden to tell us what they really think.
  • The real decisions get thrashed out behind closed doors and the public don't get a say in any sort of nuance about how those decisions are reached. We simply have the blunt instrument of "keep 'em" or "chuck 'em out" once every four or five years. In the meantime we don't get any sort of a say.
I am sure there are loads more but that will do for starters.

My wife (who is not directly involved with politics herself) will often say to me "Why won't they answer the question?" or "What is she on about?" when I am watching political programmes. She is a very well educated professional person but she is turned off by the sort of display she regularly sees like this and I struggle to answer her (and other non-political friends who ask me the same) questions on this. I try to explain to them why ministers can't really say what they mean or think but the more I do it, the more it just all seems so artificial and yes, silly.

It is this sort of thing that continues the public's disengagement with politics. It makes them think politicians are all liars because they hear them say one thing in government and then later when they have left office, something completely different. It has people shouting at their radios and TVs in frustration that for seventh time Minister X has avoided answering Humphries or Paxman's question.

Now, after all my criticism I am not going to pretend there are any easy answers to this. This culture and way of doing things is deeply embedded in our politics.

There must be things we can do to improve it though, surely? I think that one of the problems is that the people who could do something about it, the politicians themselves are so ensconsed in the current system that they cannot see the wood for the trees and it would almost be like speaking alien to them to get them to engage with doing things differently.

I am not a political scientist or academic but here are a couple of ideas to throw into the mix as to how we could improve this situation. I am sure there will be problems with what I suggest but I offer them as starting points for discussion. Hopefully other people will be able to contribute their thoughts in the comments below too.

Here goes:
  • Allow more votes to be treated as "conscience votes" are now. These are usually reserved for things like votes on the death penatly or stem cell research. But could this not also be extended to other areas?
  • Allow ministers to be honest about their views. I am a director of a company and I run my it with 4 other people who attend management meetings. Of course we do not always agree on everything and we sometimes have quite heated debates but we take the decisions and act upon them accordingly. However, when I am talking to our staff, I don't feel obliged to pretend that I personally agreed with everything that was decided. If asked I feel able to give my honest view about things but can explain that I lost the argument and it has been decided to do something a certain way and we will do our best to make it work. Why can't ministers work on this sort of principle? It would mean they could be more honest about their views and we, the public would know what they were thinking and I would know which ministers were aligned with me on which issues. (I am sure commenters will have views on this one!)
I am also interested to hear whether others have ideas about how to change things in this area. I can't be the first person to have lamented the existing system and its shortcomings.

If I get a decent amount of response I might do another post on this later on.

One final point, I am not politically naive. I know how hard it would be to change the culture we have but to anyone who thinks this is all pie in the sky I would ask what do you propose instead to help re-engage the electorate with politics?


FloTom said...

As I said collective responsibility is not the problem the problem is interviewers asking Ministers about things that fall outside their departmental responsibility.

For instance why does an interviewer want to question the Minister for Education about foreign affairs? Clearly this falls outside his remit in the sense that he has no responsibility for it. The object of asking him these questions would be clearly to portray the government as divided. It is the modern equivalent of bear baiting.

Kalvis Jansons said...

We need more people like Tony Benn. You might not always agree with him, but he is always worth hearing out.

The current Labour Party are a bunch of low-grade clones.

Mark Reckons said...

FT - That's pretty difficult though because often ministers are on BBC Question Time or Any Questions and could be asked anything.

I certainly take your point about bear baiting though. Trying to catch ministers out is treated as sport by journalists.

Kalvis - Tony Benn is a fantastic orator and debater but how was he when he was a minister bound by the strictures of CR?

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

A government is a collective. Moreover, it is sustained by asking MPs to vote for it and expects those belonging to the same party to do so. How can that be demanded if responsibility is several amongst Ministers who then are not obliged to support what their colleagues are demanding others support?

(That points to the distinction with your illustrative example of a company - employees are not being asked to vote to endorse and permit implementation of a (collective) management view.)

Alan Clarke (he of the Diaries) I recall once told an interviewer that he thought it unlikely he himself supported everything in his party’s manifesto (in the sense that he would have put things in himself) but then that was not the point of joining up with a political party. He was obliged to explain that no-one intelligent enough to have their own mind could take a different view. So it goes with collective responsibility in government.

The problems you identify could be attributed to other factors than the doctrine of collective responsibility. Government policy is often ill-thought out (see Malloch-Brown’s recent comments) and therefore not easily explained. Additionally, New Labour’s culture facilitates anyone in Government answering anything for the underlying facts and truth need not intrude, and seemingly no-one need accept direct responsibility for anything in particular but they must “sing from the same hymn sheet“.

Alex said...

Yes, Yes, a thousand times YES! I agree with every word (well almost: why is "Interviewers pick at ministers in order to try and provoke a "gaffe"." a bad thing? Surely we want interviewers to do this?).

I think the main problem is that the Prime Minister is no longer "First among equals", and so if one of his ministers criticized a government policy, they should expect a harsh rebuke by the Prime Minster, and their position to under threat.

One slightly related thing that annoys perhaps even more is when a politician gives one of these meaningless answers to a question about the logic of a policy, when the policy is a good one that can be defended easily.

A good example would be the government line on spending cuts. They've lied about what their plans are, even when caught out, but their (general) policy on this is right: examine in detail in the medium term where spending cuts should come from (obviously they're not going to propose the big cuts like trident which should be discussed now, but the more bureaucratic spending cuts can wait, say a year, to be discussed), but the cuts shouldn't come now, or even just as we come out of the recession, else we'll plunge further/back into recession (especially since unemployment follows growth but slightly behind). Why is that hard to defend without lying?