Amateur Hour in British Politics
As more and more ministers are handed top jobs for their loyalty rather than their competence, former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall considers what we can do about this democratic deficit
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Soon after my arrival in Tbilisi, Georgia, one of my embassy staff lamented that “British ambassadors seem to be getting younger and younger”. I had to gently point out to him that the real problem was that he was simply getting older.
Unfortunately, no such correlation exists in British politics. I may or may not be getting wiser as I get older, but the quality of our politicians is certainly getting much poorer.
One of the biggest weaknesses in our political system is the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, the ministers for which are selected from the very small number of Members of Parliament. This puts a premium on ensuring that good quality people enter politics; that ministers are selected for their competence and ideally some relevant experience; and that they are motivated by a true desire to govern effectively.
Unfortunately, what we have witnessed in recent years is many qualified people being turned off running for Parliament because of the relatively low pay, anti-social working hours, brutal scrutiny of social media, polarising rhetoric, personal abuse, and real risks to their physical safety. Those who are willing to run the gauntlet must possess enormous self-confidence and thick skins, which often translates to becoming impervious to alternative points of view or criticism, constructive or not.
Once in Parliament, unless they have substantial private wealth, many MPs may be susceptible to dodgy money-making schemes, such as taking ‘cash for questions’ or – as we have seen with Matt Hancock – pursuing gimmicks such as appearing on celebrity reality TV shows. Others may keep outside jobs, which distract from or even conflict with, their duties as MPs.
During the pandemic lockdown, Conservative MP Geoffrey Cox voted remotely while earning hundreds of thousands of pounds from a second job advising the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven accused of corruption. Boris Johnson is right now busy working the lucrative international speakers circuit.
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Even those MPs with a genuinely altruistic desire to serve with integrity come under pressure to toe the party line, in order to advance up the hierarchy into positions of influence.
The whipping system is designed to crush independent thought or challenge to the government’s position. It is one thing to want to maintain a modicum of party discipline, it is another altogether to bully MPs into submission – as we learn former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson used to do – or drive dissenting MPs out of the party altogether, as Boris Johnson did during the contentious parliamentary debates over Brexit.
A healthy party allows a wide range of opinions, and free votes on matters of conscience.
The appointment of ministers has become equally problematic – seemingly based more on personal loyalty to the leader or to manage tensions within the party, than on competence or experience.
Johnson excluded anyone not willing to back his extreme form of Brexit. Liz Truss excluded from senior positions MPs who had supported her rival, Rishi Sunak, or those who questioned her economic policies. This left a very narrow pool of candidates from which to appoint ministers – and not all of whom were well qualified. It also reduced diversity of opinion within Cabinet. Sunak has been more inclusive, yet in seeking to appease different factions of the party, has also appointed some ministers unsuited to higher office, such as Suella Braverman.
Once in Cabinet, too many ministers seem more motivated to use their positions to advance their careers or raise their profile as potential future prime ministers, than to focus seriously on the issues for which they are responsible.
As Foreign Secretary, Truss seemed to spend more time obsessing about her social media profile and seeking photo opportunities with famous people or in iconic locations, than on the substance of her international role. We have also had successive home secretaries making extravagant promises on crime and migration which they cannot deliver, rather than grappling with the detailed intricacies of asylum or police policy.
Contrary to the popular myth about the Sir Humphreys’ wanting to manipulate ministers and have them meekly do their bidding, most civil servants want ministers who care about the subject matters at hand and know what they are doing.
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As a former diplomat, I can tell you it was acutely embarrassing to host meetings between show-boating, inexperienced British ministers and foreign dignitaries, for whom the issues at hand were pressing and merited serious British attention.
I felt this particularly acutely during my postings to New Delhi and Washington, where too many British ministers came to visit because the US and India were the places to be seen, rather than because they had genuine business they needed to achieve there.
Many times, we had to try to dissuade ministers from coming, or to defer their visits, because too many wanted to come at the same time. Admittedly, this was sometimes a by-product of their inability to travel far except during recess. But sometimes their Indian or American counterparts just did not want to meet them, because they had already met other British ministers recently or because they feared it would be a waste of time.
Of course, not all British MPs or ministers are this way. I worked with many who took their jobs seriously, cared deeply about the issues at hand, and worked immensely hard to deliver for their constituents and their country. But their numbers are declining.
It is also not a problem uniquely confined to the Conservatives. But, as the party in power for the past 12 years, it has been the one that has demonstrated these traits and degraded our government the most. It has also been the party which has most abused the peerage system to dole out favours to cronies.
It used to be said that the British excelled at being gifted amateurs.
It is certainly a legitimate criticism of the Civil Service that too many are generalists, without specialised qualifications. It is also a legitimate observation that too many fast-stream civil servants come from privileged backgrounds, disproportionately from the south-east or do not sufficiently represent the diversity of the British population. But, at least in the Foreign Office where I worked, there were genuine, sustained efforts to broaden our intake, attract applicants from all parts of the UK, with more diverse backgrounds, and to train up staff to have more specialised skills.
The same cannot be said of our politicians, where we seem to have elevated amateurism to an art form. Many of them may be very clever, but are shallow and motivated less by public service and more by personal ambition and vanity. The problems seem to be getting worse, not better. It is nothing to be proud about.
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How do we fix this?
Though many may be outraged at the notion, I believe we should consider paying our MPs a better salary to attract better candidates and prevent them seeking to enhance their income through dubious methods. We could give them more funds to staff their offices with professional aides, to be overseen by a proper human resources agency to facilitate recruitment, and reduce bullying.
We should end the nepotistic practice of letting MPs employ family members on their staff. We could change the hours of Parliament to be more friendly to those with young families or other outside responsibilities. We could require MPs to be present when Parliament is in session, except for reasons of ill health or other legitimate circumstances, related to their duties.
And we could end the practice of removing the whip from dissenting members of Parliament to allow MPs to vote more freely on their conscience. Let their constituents decide if they want their MP to remain or organise a recall.
At the ministerial level, we could consider allowing prime ministers to appoint a certain proportion of Cabinet members from outside Parliament, to allow them to hire people with expertise in their field – just as many politicians want the Civil Service to be able to hire more outside professionals.
We should put the Ministerial Code on a statutory basis and ban those who violate it from public office, to enhance probity in public life. I suggest we could also require all Cabinet nominees to undergo confirmation hearings before parliamentary select committees, to set out how they would go about their job and assess their suitability for the role, before they are approved for office. It is routine for people wishing to advance in other kinds of careers to be interviewed for higher positions – why should a different standard apply to politicians?
These are radical suggestions, to which there may be considerable opposition, as well as genuine obstacles or unintended side-effects which I have overlooked. But if you, like me, believe the quality of our politicians has gone down, we must start somewhere with proposals for how to improve them.