By David Campbell Bannerman, Chairman of The Freedom Association
Latest Political events have left most of us breathless, bewildered and despairing. Once Great Offices of State have been brought into dispute, changing hands faster than gambling cards. Five Prime Ministers in six years and four Chancellors in under four months. Now the total volte farce of a Budget delivered only in October is being binned and totally reversed following serious market instability from the party that trades on economic competence.
Now we have seen the total abandonment of the programme the new Prime Minister advanced just months ago. We have a Prime Minister in Rishi Sunak Conservative Party members didn’t endorse; indeed rejected just months ago, and an empty programme no-one has backed, but which seems in contravention of key aspects of the 2019 manifesto on which the Conservative Government under Boris Johnson was elected with the biggest mandate for 35 years. This is not a criticism of Sunak, but of the party process.
This is a sham, a farce, a disaster. The only benefit is that Rishi Sunak’s Government has brought some stability after such turbulence worthy of the most ferocious of rollercoasters.
What we are witnessing seems to be an absolute breakdown of governance itself. I say ‘governance’ not ‘government’ – meaning the “manner of governing a state” rather than “the body/entity invested with the power to manage a political unit, organisation or state”.
That to me lies at the heart of this appalling shambles. The manner of governance.
The Freedom Association is not just about defending individual freedom, free speech and free expression; our principles embrace the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, limited government, the free market economy, too – all affected by this failure of governance.
Governing has become like running in quicksand, with the public wondering why Government seems incapable of getting anywhere and of delivering anything, fast. This has brought about dangerous levels of dissatisfaction, complacency and cynicism of the public in the electoral system.
Examples readily abound. The ‘Boats Crisis’ is a perfect example. One would expect one of the primary duties of Government would be to protect our freedoms by maintaining the borders of the country. Yet so far this year 43,000 undocumented unknown individuals, mainly young men, have arrived uninvited and unannounced on our shores.
The Government response is what? Mass arrests? Troops ordered to defend the beaches? The Navy turning back the boats? This is what the Australians successfully did (ensuring the vessels were safe and with fresh provisions – which led to a drop from 60,000 a year to zero. I met the minister responsible).
No! The response has been to welcome them into our country, give them free meals, free instant healthcare (unavailable to those outside the camp walls), free high-grade mobile phones, bicycles and handouts, and treat economic immigrants like refugees when they have travelled through so many safe countries without claiming asylum there. It has been to make dedicated hotel workers redundant before Christmas as hotels are turned into hostels (often in breach of planning permission which only allows 28 days of such ‘change of use’) right across the UK at 300 sites. Veterans’ events, weddings, major functions have been cancelled with the Home Office offering £1 million cheques at a time and a daily cost of £7 million so far.
Meanwhile Care4Calais and other misguided charity workers (allegedly the charity is under investigation by the Charity Commissioners) offer illegal immigrants advice on how to beat the system in French camps. Demonstrators arrive at the Manston immigration centre on behalf of the illegal immigrants - and they are immigrants as they are coming into the county. Migrants move within a country.
Above all, we have human rights lawyers line up to use taxpayers’ cash to work against taxpayers’ interests – particularly by using the twisted knot of human rights laws from ECHR Court judgements to Blair’s Human Rights Act to May’s Sex Trafficking Act to frustrate removals policies such as the Rwanda Plan – approved by Parliament; suspended by lawyers.
This is what creates this legalistic quicksand - and the Government is then continually made to look like the bad guy with numerous Parliamentary and legal challenges. Rather than indulge in PR friendly schemes which appear to address the problems – such as paying the French more to try to stop migrants – we need to address the real causes. The BBC even reported a Calais policeman saying that the EU was to blame by preventing the French police from arresting undocumented illegal immigrants, Even if they stop them getting in boats, they have to let them go again.
There seems to be a new enthusiasm to open the gates to yet more people coming into the UK, despite the fact that now 1 in 6 people in the UK were born abroad and around 8 million people – the equivalent of all people living in Wales and Scotland – have arrived since 2004. The public have reached their tolerance limit when it comes to the scale of Immigration. The British people are law-abiding and strong – they are slow to rise, but when they do, they are formidable.
This picture looks like total and abject failure. A collective breakdown brought by excessive technocratic and legalistic obstacles to the democratic will. It is more the failure of governance than an individual Government – these barriers would apply to a future Labour or Coalition Government. It was John Reid, whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently, who coined the phrase “not fit for purpose” to describe the Home Office. Despite decades seeking reform, the same failure to reform is with us today. The failings are systemic.
A barrister friend of mine says this represents the 1930s Weimar Republic in the weakness and frustration of its democracy, which is a scary parallel indeed.
Unfortunately, we saw this again with Brexit. I really fear that there is an agenda to obstruct and undermine all the benefits of Brexit currently in the pipeline, as there was negotiating a Brexit deal under Theresa May – where it often seemed our negotiating team was on the same side as the EU. Thank God for Lord Frost later.
Suddenly, progress on the UK-India trade deal, which would bring major benefits for UK exports through removing 150% tariffs on luxury goods such as top-end cars and whiskies, appears to have stalled despite warm relations between Sunak and Indian Prime Minister Modi. So too has the prospect of joining the World’s largest trade block, which is not the EU, but the Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade block. Again, talk of that has quietened. These would both be decisive breaks from EU convergence. Is that the problem? Would it disrupt the new agenda to retain convergence?
In my view, EU deregulation – the removal, repeal or reform of up to 700,000 pages of EU red tape, directives, regulations and ECJ court rulings (a Nelson’s Column worth of paper) – is the primary economic benefit of Brexit.
Whilst it is very welcome news to see one such benefit – the billions in extra investment that scrapping the EU’s excessive solvency II directive required – in the Autumn Statement as Treasury policy, progress on removing up to 700,000 pages of EU red tape has suddenly been put in doubt by a feeble excuse: they have discovered another 1,200 laws in the archive and OFFICIALS DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO GO THROUGH THEM ALL! What? Wouldn’t saving money be rather a good use of officials time – that large army – just now? No wonder Jacob Rees-Mogg, who introduced the Brexit Freedoms Bill, has attacked the delay.
Now the Sunday Times reports that we are slipping back to discussing failed and rejected trade models when we have the arm’s length deal we need now – and just need to sort the protocol. The ‘Swiss option’ is half a deal. It covers only goods and people of the four core freedoms at the heart of all free trade deals and EU membership, and not investment and Services such as Financial Services – which is why Swiss banks such as Swiss Re and UBS operate out of London.
It is over complex and unwieldy, with 120 bilateral agreements, not the one like the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (the TCA) we have now. Above all there is no control over immigration – the second dominating reason why people voted for Brexit – as the Swiss option has a signed freedom of movement bilateral agreement.
Even the Director General of the CBI, who were very anti Brexit, said on Laura Kuenssberg’s show on the BBC that the Swiss deal would be a distraction and the Government should focus on sorting the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Protocol is another example of such failure of governance. This revolves around selling-out the UK on alignment to EU rules in order to ‘solve’ the so-called ‘border issue’ that was always ever a device, a tool, to keep the whole of the UK aligned to the EU. It is the EU that has incited community tensions this way by weaponizing the issue through Varadkar and the Irish Government. A previous Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny did not regard it as hard to solve.
How many times has the Government threatened to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol? Article 16 is an emergency clause to allow (where there are serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are likely to persist) a suspension of the Protocol until sorted. At least the Protocol Bill, which has passed through the Commons, is now making its way through the Lords, but there is a reluctance even to use that legislation or act on the Protocol, in fear of EU retaliation. Another logjam; another lack of courage.
On the NHS, the Government has not looked at reform, but has provided more and more resources, with seemingly greater and greater queues in the form of waiting lists. As Michael Portillo points out on GB News, we have increased spending as a share of Government expenditure from 30% to 40% at the expense of the police, soldiers and schools, but waiting lists have ballooned. The Covid impact is wearing thin as an excuse and the denial of access to care for the first time seeing the NHS drop amongst the public. What’s the plan?
There are numerous other examples of such failures in governance we can all point out, but what are the reasons and what are the elements behind this?
Taking all the sectors at play here, I’ll start with MPs first.
It is clear that people think that the quality of MPs is much diminished. I see too many ministers that are weak; too many overpromoted; and far too many lacking conviction. Compare them with Lady Thatcher’s conviction and strength; Michael Portillo, with his razor sharp mind and real authority; Peter Lilley – one of the brightest and most sensitive ministers I have met; the gutsy and competent Gillian Shepherd; Nigel Lawson, the creative Chancellor; David Mellor with his grasp of culture; Lord Carrington, the last minister to resign over something he didn’t do out of principle (the loss of the Falklands); my old boss, Sir Patrick Mayhew, a great man of principle who laid the foundations for the Good Friday Agreement; the canny Norman Tebbit, and yes, even Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, bright characters and right on other things than Europe. Many of today’s ministers belong in the civil service or middle management. Rather than giving leadership to departments, too many have become robotic compliant reciters of given policy positions.
This is a feature of the selection of MPs, which has become a disaster in itself, in all parties. Tony Blair set the model by controlling candidate selection. All Eurosceptic Labour MEPs were wiped out in one go, a Labour MP told me. The journalist Michael Crick’s Twitter page, @Tomorrow’sMPs, lifts the lid on Labour selection, saying “Labour’s selection processes are unfair, and verge on corrupt. Some contenders get access to local membership lists long before others do”; whilst saying Lib Dems only offer a single candidate often.
Conservative Party selection procedures are far too centralised and look for the compliant MP, not the independent minded free thinkers of old – those, like Lady Thatcher, who were prepared to challenge officials and their advice; people who were ideological. They are also too much into Blair-style tokenism. I understand the emphasis on Conservative candidates to be able to demonstrate the ability to speak in public is much diminished. Some get to a high level without the ability to put their case effectively in speeches or the media. Too many are careerists. More worryingly is the lack of interview time to ascertain whether candidates are actually real Conservatives. Their actual views are little scrutinised.
Number 10, so constantly under pressure, and often without an Alastair Campbell or Craig Oliver to provide steady and informed top-level guidance, is too often pushed around by the media and Parliament, and it is too ready to throw ministers under a bus if enough pressure is brought to bear.
Whilst action on Pincher may have been too slow, action on Conor Burns may have been too fast and unjust. He was immediately fired, humiliated, and banned before having any right to reply. Now we find there is no evidence from the supposed witness - so there is not even a charge; and it was off the Parliamentary estate anyway. A good minister shoddily treated by the system.
Political correctness and wokeness are killing free speech and free expression. Any supposed variance from agreed norms and the media (primarily social media) organise a ‘pile on’.
I am informed that students in journalism are now schooled that their careers will be best advanced by tearing down rather than actual objective, intelligent and courageous reporting of the facts.
On impartiality, the great John Humphrys of BBC Radio 4 Today fame, never gave away his politics until he had retired, such was his professionalism. He was demanding of all – and fair. But now we have Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel publicly whingeing at the fact they have to be impartial, with Maitlis regularly straying into impartiality in direct and unacceptable ways.
The bias in the BBC, and other channels, such as Channel 4 News and Sky and others – more amongst those controlling the agenda than presenters generally – the Media Line – does not seek to report facts for the viewer to make their own judgement on, but seeks to campaign and load the facts one way. Apparently (Nigel Farage told) Climate Change is now such an ‘uncontested and proven view’, apparently, that bias in mentioning it is beyond the rules on impartiality.
MPs, of course, are having to operate in a media and social media world that is incessant and 24 hours. Whilst very revealing of hidden facts in a positive way, it is also too full of bile and falsities on another negative level. I am just immensely glad that as a keen tweeter, with 40,000 people kind enough to listen to my thoughts, that Elon Musk has arrived as Chief Twit restoring free speech and free expression to an important communications platform for politicians.
As for Whitehall – that great body of Government itself - the man or woman on the street see the Government in a highly personalised way: it is Boris’s Government in charge; Liz Truss’s policies; Sunak’s budget, delivered by Jeremy Hunt.
What the public doesn’t see, and doesn’t think much about, is that massive technocratic, legalistic and technical machine behind the few politicians. That is where the numbers are. The Department of Work and Pensions has 96,011 employees for example, and there are 478,540 full-time equivalent civil servants as of March 2022. The Government’s 121 ministers are totally outnumbered, and too often under remunerated. Many civil servants are paid more than the Prime Minister.
I know, as a former Special Adviser, that officials resent external influence – they want to be in control. They claim not to be political, but very much are – they just aren’t party political.
In my view, however, there are now too many special advisers to ministers (SPADS), who are half official and half party political. In my day, when I was a Northern Ireland SPAD (1996-97), there were only 40. Blair had 80. Now there are 180. I don’t knock SPADS; many are very bright, able and well connected, but some don’t have the experience, whilst others create instability in government though too many media contacts and briefings. Dominic Cummings tried to run Government through SPADS, who formed much of Vote Leave, too, but they are not really part of departmental command structures. Departments have press offices anyway, so there is some duplication.
There is also too much of a ‘Chumocracy’: a web of personal relationships where contacts and personal connections count most. The number of married or dating senior advisers, or who are children or friends of, is quite striking.
Newer, I think, is that too many senior civil servants are now becoming overtly political: in office through leaking and obstruction, as well as out of office through public statements. How dare a former servant of the Crown help bring down a Prime Minister, such as former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary (not known for being fans of Boris Johnson) Lord Simon McDonald with his “extraordinary, devastating intervention” which helped bring Boris down over Pincher?
These generally strong Remainers loved the EU because it was like them, putting the technocratic and legalistic before the democratic. A Valhalla for Sir Humphrey Abbleby-like Yes Minister dominance. Former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell is more measured and sensible in his interventions, but he is still actively political. There is too much nauseous use of the phrase ‘Speaking Truth unto Power.’ This gives away a superior attitude where the officials are supposedly the best judges of the truth – like the EU - through what superior education and privilege seemingly.
The ability to hamper, disrupt or destroy ministers is out of control. How can they deliver their agenda for the people who elected them when they are forever distracted by inquiries, legal challenges, departmental resistance? Priti Patel was a victim of this. Dominic Raab is being currently called a bully – with a huge media drama about allegedly throwing a few tomatoes, elevated to career-destructive level, shows officials are in power, not the Government.
If not finding resistance in departments, ministers are being subject to ‘Kangaroo Court’ justice in the Houses of Parliament. And a misuse of an over-controlling Ministerial Code, that seems designed to tie the hands of ministers delivering their agendas, rather than preventing misuse of office, which is not of course acceptable.
There is an ultimate court, and that is the British voter. They have every right to throw out supposedly sleazy or incompetent MPs, as they did after the Parliamentary expenses scandal, and the electorate is becoming more canny on tactical voting. That is the democratic way surely, not endless legalistic and technocratic codes – the stuff of EU rule.
Look at Boris Johnson. What court in the land (and the Privileges Committee is semi-judicial) would allow such compromised MPs who have been so vocal on Boris to hold court over a Prime Minister? Those who have shown such aggression or public attacks, such as Harriet Harman, have clearly been hostile to him.
This use of judicial tools for political ends seems reflected in the USA, too, where a ‘War Crimes investigator’ is let loose on Donald Trump. Whatever one thinks of Trump, to use the legal system and absurd comparisons to war crimes to debar a political candidate, is a dangerous undemocratic development indeed. Or to have the FBI as political police to make Trump look bad by raiding his Florida home in such a disgraceful manner. That too is abuse by State officials of their public office. Or to claim that Trump’s deep concerns over election fraud and voting integrity are ‘false claims’, as if that is definitive, as the BBC do, and that voter fraud doesn’t exist (think the Mafia helping Kennedy in Chicago; or the UK case of misuse of postal ballots in Tower Hamlets) is biased reporting.
Then, of course, to ban someone who was an elected President from Twitter, just because his views don’t conform with extreme forms of Californian wokeness, is very worrying. It is all part of the same problem – the onward march of aggressive Cultural Marxism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whitehall is shown to be just as left-leaning as its genesis, Academia, which is 80-90% left-wing and hooked on state support, the mainstream media, who now put more emphasis on political activism than to report unbiased facts, and the cultural sector, also state dependent and frequent unrealistic in its criticisms of the Government. Why does it seem that it is generally the right-wing ministers attacked this way: Braverman, Raab, Boris, whilst Left-leaning MPs seem to enjoy a much softer treatment?
The evidence of this is the recent public sector strikes announced – including whole Departments going on strike from mid-December such as the Home Office, the Department of Transport and Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, affecting passport and border checks, driving tests and payment of farm subsidies.
As the inventor of rail franchising (which pre-Covid attracted more passengers than BR ever did, on a third more trains, and eliminated the subsidy for trains overall, if not for track), I found the Government’s decision to replace the successful (but needing some reforms) franchises with the unsuccessful (old BR and Corbyn-style renationalisation) concessions thanks to the public sector Williams Report, incomprehensible and anti-Conservative.
In particular, the decision to negotiate as one, as the Government, was irresponsible, bringing back national rail strikes after their absence under rail privatisation. There has been confusion over whether the Transport Secretary should be in the room or not. Shapps refused to be, and his two successors have met with the unions. Are we going back to retro 1970s-style ‘Beer and Sandwiches’ as well as curly sandwiches?
Whilst there may have been some painful single franchise-only strikes, such as on Southern, other franchises kept operating, and it was not nationwide. If the Government can’t even recognise, reward and improve successful policies, what hope is there? Personally, I would extend such a franchising model to schools, hospitals and to much of Whitehall.
So, in all these ways, and with such a rich choice of examples sadly to choose from, it is clear that something is seriously wrong with the way we are governed – with governance – that is far deeper, and in much greater need of radical reform, than just the usual choice of policies between the two dominant political parties.
Radical reform is needed to govern better; and in so doing, to restore many of the freedoms we hold dear.