In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Hutton on Brown

Posted by seumasach on June 7, 2009

Hutton renews here the traditional preoccupation of the British oligarchy with chopping off the heads of monarchs. However, I find it quite bizarre to see Gordon Brown presented as a monarch. A puppet might be more apt- he is so obviously subordinate to the City, bestowing unlimited largess on them at unimaginable cost to ourselves. That the extreme concentration of wealth is incompatible with democracy and, ultimately, any viable body politic, seems to have been lost on us. However as I have argued here the oligarchy, on a high after pulling off the bailout heist, now wish to institutionalise the impotence of the executive and the political class in general.

If we are to stand up to these people we need a strong executive So, by all means, reform the legislative, introducing a written constitution with PR. etc.; but recognise that the logical consequence of this is to create a seperate, elected executive. In other words, a presidential system. The piecemeal reforms on offer will not extend democracy but restrict it and subordinate it to oligarchy: a return to what Disraeli dubbed the Venetian System

Confirming this is the fact that in all this debate supposedly about democracy nothing is said about the encroachments of oligarchy, the privatization of every aspect of political life, even the legal system, and such extraordinary abusesas the substitution of unelected, anonymous, unconstitutional bodies such as COBRA for
the cabinet.

Will Hutton


7th June, 2009

I remember Tony Blair early in his premiership discussing cabinet government with Roy Jenkins. Or, rather, not discussing cabinet government. For, as Blair explained, he did not intend cabinet ever to last longer than an hour; the best cabinet was 30 minutes. He planned to drive government from Number 10, using all the powers at his discretion to get his way as fast and efficiently as possible. Jenkins gently reproached his young charge; it would lead to great political mischief, as it did. Think Iraq.

But Blair understood both the key to, and temptation of, the unwritten British constitution. For although it is legitimised by regular parliamentary elections, Britain’s organisation of government is essentially monarchical. With control of the House of the Commons, the prime minister is de facto an elected monarch, a seductive power that ultimately is each holder’s undoing. Thatcher and Blair found that out. Brown is learning the same lesson.

His problems, beyond the many of his own making, go back to the nature of our constitution. There are few formal checks and balances. The executive power of the crown, borrowed by the prime minister, saturates everything. The constitutional story is that the crown dissolves Parliament at will because it is her Parliament; in reality, the power becomes the prime minister’s. Similarly, and for the same reasons, the prime minister can create and dismantle departments of state at will. He or she can appoint anybody to the House of Lords to become a minister with zero process. Patronage abounds. But from that unconstrained power comes all manner of psychoses and opportunities for political implosion. Worse, it creates a dysfunctional state in which efficient public spending is close to impossible.

For a start, the plenipotentiary powers of the prime minister quickly turn Number 10 into a court. Both Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair ran governments with the disproportionate influence of key courtiers attracted by the magnetism of such raw power. Alan Walters second-guessed chancellor Nigel Lawson’s economic policy while Bernard Ingham had huge influence as press secretary; Jonathan Powell, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell played similar roles for Blair. For Gordon Brown, it is Ed Balls, Peter Mandelson, Shriti Vedera and, until recently, Damian McBride.

To an extent, courtiers surround government leaders in all democracies; it is worse here because of the sheer scale of the discretionary power in the prime minister’s hands. Caroline Flint’s complaint about an inside tier of the cabinet from which she was excluded could have been made by any minister in modern times. But this concentration of power also sets up incredible political tension. Because constitutionally the parliament is not the people’s but the crown’s, once a politician commands a parliamentary majority, he or she can become prime minister in midterm without having to call an election. So eliminate the incumbent and that power can be yours.

It is this possibility that allowed Brown to menace and undermine Blair for 10 years. On top of all this, only the Treasury has similar discretionary power as Number 10. Brown, withholding details of public spending plans from his prime minister or even the results of the five tests on the euro until hours before they were publicly released, understood how the system conferred extraordinary personal power on him as well as his boss. He then mounted a ruthless putsch to give himself a three years as unelected prime minister.

Nor, in other systems, could there ever have been Brown’s subsequent hesitation over whether to call an election based only on party and personal advantage. Indeed, elections are culturally awkward. Brown and his supporters could argue without embarrassment that he should be crowned rather than compete with other candidates, because an election would be “distracting”. Now, despite his evident lack of leadership qualities and the electoral defeat facing his party, he is made immeasurably safer because MPs fear his deposition would immediately trigger a general election which Labour is ill-prepared to fight. This is a mess not just because of personalities and factional fights. It is a mess because of the constitution, just as it was for the Tories before them.

The deformation reaches into the heart of the state; it is one of the reasons why the public sector’s record on productivity and innovation is so indifferent. A classic example is the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). Brown created this department out of the old Department of Education & DTI especially for Ed Balls in 2007, a bauble for a favoured courtier. However, Balls insisted he deserved better and was rewarded with the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. Now, to compensate him for not becoming chancellor, which he thought was his right until James Purnell’s resignation, and Peter Mandelson for not becoming foreign secretary, after 20 months DIUS is being broken up and the constituent parts given back to their old departments.

Departments of state and, with them, great swaths of public spending, are treated as political spoils. With Geoff Hoon’s resignation as transport secretary, this department alone will have had four secretaries of state in three years. It’s a similar story in defence, with environment and energy only marginally less hard hit; these are all departments with long-term planning horizons, but whose political leaders are birds of passage. What chance is there of difficult decisions being taken? Systematic policy developed? Of careful attention invested in how effectively and efficiently cash is spent?

Prime ministers and opposition leaders talk about eliminating waste in government. What they never grasp is that the inefficiency of so much public spending is integrally bound up with Britain’s constitutional settlement. Brown, like Cameron, shores up his position through patronage and so prevents any significant politician from building an independent power base. The culture of the reshuffle grows out of the capacity continually to create new political spoils as political exigency dictates, a patronage that comes from borrowed monarchical discretion. We watched Brown at it again on Friday. But the impact on the underlying departments and efficiency with which public money is spent is bound to be disastrous. MPs’ expenses are part and parcel of this sorry, discretionary, patronage story.

Brown as chancellor and now as prime minister, complete with his “black” politics, is a creature of this system. The factionalism it generates creates bitterness that lasts for years. What is needed is a written constitution, itself a precursor of a reformed capitalism, effective public activism and lasting social change. This, as James Purnell said in his resignation letter, must be the progressive case. Labour had its chance to lead the reform. Brown was resister-in-chief. Now, like Faust, his time of reckoning approaches. The tragedy is that he takes the Labour party down with him.

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