Today
Wed 22 September 2021

Why do those in positions of power now evade accountability despite numerous examples of incompetence, dangerous liaisons, lies, and even corruption at the heart of Boris Johnson’s Government? Because the British political system allows them to, says Gavin Esler

The most celebrated British legal figure of the 20th Century, Lord Denning, was the last English judge to have the right to stay in his job for life. He often joked that he had “every Christian virtue, except resignation”, but Denning also embodied something that the English political historian Peter Hennessy once called – with a pinch of humour – the ‘Good Chap’ theory of government.

Hennessy argued that a major tradition in English public life was for judges, government ministers and other “chaps” (of course, always “chaps”) to recognise the limits of their powers, even if there were no rules written down in law or codified in a formal constitution. 

“The British Constitution is a state of mind,” Hennessy wrote. “It requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work.”

When “good chaps” crossed some invisible line and abused their power, they did what good chaps do – they quit. Peter Carrington, Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary resigned as a result of the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands, even though he was cleared of wrongdoing. Lord Carrington felt that someone in government had to bear responsibility for a major policy failure. But that was then.

Hennessy and other constitutional experts have now been forced to reconsider what happens if those in positions of power do not resign despite embarrassing examples of incompetence, dangerous liaisons, lies and even corruption.

In the aftermath of the 2016 EU Referendum, Hennessy and a colleague, Andrew Blick, began to worry that the good chaps were becoming extinct. By 2019, they wrote: “If general standards of good behaviour among senior UK politicians can no longer be taken for granted, then neither can the sustenance of key constitutional principles.”

Blick went on to argue: “This perspective could lead to a number of possible activities, which would tend to have constitutional implications. They might include heavy politicisation of public appointments; the targeting of the rights of unpopular minority groups; the creation and deployment of excessively broad delegated executive powers; legislative ouster clauses restricting the potential for judicial review of those powers; attempts to bypass standards of propriety involving the use of public money to the benefit of political allies; misuse of emergency powers; and efforts to curb unfavourable media coverage (perhaps focused on public broadcasters).”

Does any of this sound familiar?

British “government sources” and their friends in the media have floated various ideas to “crackdown” on judges, public service broadcasters – the BBC and Channel 4 – and to make significant public appointments from their own political tribe. They have targeted the rights of unpopular minority groups, especially migrants. There have been repeated attempts to bypass standards of propriety involving the use of public money to the benefit of political allies, as exposed by the scandal around recipients of procurement contracts during the pandemic.

Turning a blind eye to the rule-breaking of Dominic Cummings’ road trip to Barnard Castle while instructing other citizens to comply with Coronavirus rules was merely the most obvious example of the declining health of the last good chap.

But there was also the matter of Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick pushing through a planning application from the former owner of the Daily Express, Richard Desmond. Jenrick’s involvement saved Desmond millions. Desmond donated £12,000 to the Conservative Party. Everything which occurred was legal – nothing to see here.

Nothing of note is worth mentioning either about Matt Hancock, Priti Patel, ‘Test and Trace’ consultants, or threats to neutralise the power of troublesome judges – although readers may have a view on whether Boris Johnson leads a Government in which “general standards of good behaviour among senior UK politicians… can no longer be taken for granted”.

Like a rotting fish, the decay of standards in British public life begins at the head. 


An Outdated Complacency

Books have been written about how Boris Johnson’s career has been built on lies. Heathcote Williams subtitles his A Study in Depravity; while Peter Oborne has penned The Assault on Truth and is creating a website to catalogue his reign of error – the many fabrications, mis-statements and untruths.

But, as we all know, when the Labour MP Dawn Butler dared to suggest in the House of Commons that this country’s Prime Minister is a habitual liar, she was punished for breaching parliamentary etiquette, while Johnson continues to survive and thrive as the Del Boy of Downing Street.

The core of the problem is that the ‘cream’ which was once attracted into government has now come to mean a significant contingent that is both thick and rich. There exists an astonishing British complacency that Westminster is the envy of the world, when as a nation we have gone from delusions of grandeur to delusions of competence.

No other political system has constructed anything like the bizarre configuration of the 800 unelected people currently in the House of Lords. Nor, as the eminent historian Linda Colley points out, is there any other major democracy which has failed to generate some kind of written and codified constitution. Colley points out that British experts have drafted constitutions for at least 70 other countries, but what is good enough for Johnny Foreigner is not good enough for ourselves.

In Victorian times, the constitutional theorist A V Dicey wondered how it was that all the key points of British governance and the “actual work of government… are marked by the utmost vagueness and uncertainty”. It possibly worked, as Hennessy suggests, if a narrow elite of “good chaps” truly abided by an unwritten code of honesty, decency and restraint. It is certainly does not work now, when among those of genuine talent in all political parties, we have in power a group who act as if rules, restraints and conventions apply to others but not to themselves.

There is an answer to all of this – constitutional reform – but this is something likely to bore most British voters who have more urgent matters to worry about.

Hennessy and Blick suggest some kind of constitutional convention. So do others, including the ex-minister Stephen Green and two top former civil servants, Thomas Legg and Martin Donnelly, who have produced ‘Unwritten Rule’ – an outline of how constitutional reforms might work. I advocate similar reforms in my new book, How Britain Ends, as the only possible way to save the Union of the United Kingdom.

But the Johnson Government is unlikely to create rules which would potentially vaccinate against the crony-virus within our political system. Besides, complacency is another great British tradition, and complacency has eroded trust in Westminster and government itself.

The Whig historian Lord Macaulay argued that written constitutions were like paper money while Britain’s unwritten constitution was pure gold. But, in 21st Century Britain, no one pays in gold. Even paper money is increasingly outdated. We tap our plastic cards and consider investing in bitcoin, yet inexplicably retain faith in a political system designed at the time of the horse and cart.

Peter Hennessy is right – the British Constitution is a state of mind. Unfortunately, we appear to be losing ours.

Gavin Esler’s most recent book How Britain Endsis published by Head of Zeus

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