In his Ditchley lecture earlier this year, Michael Gove argued for ‘bold and persistent experimentation’. Mistakes will be made, and Gove disarmingly acknowledged some of his own, but in each case the eventual outcome was somehow better than what had gone before. A concern with the health of democracy framed the lecture: politicians need to offer the electorate bold plans, and they will be judged five years later on whether they have delivered on their promises. Between one election and the next, the government should just get on with it. Without ever getting a mention, the subtext of the lecture was Brexit, a hugely risky policy, but one which, in Gove’s eyes, has re-engaged the electorate and combated public disillusionment.
A risk-loving strategy makes a kind of sense for individual politicians, although it is problematic for the reputation of their party. If leading incumbents make the right calls, they will still be in office come the election and they will be judged favourably. If fate goes the other way, they will be pursuing other careers. This orientation blends with the stain of corruption that is spreading across this government. As Sophie Hill has brilliantly traced in ‘My Little Crony’, this government has turned repeatedly to private companies run by chums and chums of chums to mop up the billions being spent on the pandemic. The choice of private companies over local government services means that there is no political shelter for the government: their failures come home to roost at the centre. It is but one short step to the conclusion that blame avoidance matters less to ministers than oiling the revolving door that will see them comfortably ensconced on the boards of companies holding lucrative contracts when they leave office.
Gove’s conception of democracy is the reductio ad absurdum of elective dictatorship: the government makes the decisions and takes the responsibility for every success and failure, and is rewarded or punished at election time. This conception is totally unsuited to the contemporary UK, with its four divergent nations and newly assertive mayors. Facing these competing sources of authority, an effective central government has to think about cooperation and consensus-building.
In the early weeks of lockdown, it appeared that elective dictatorship could be effective. Draconian restrictions were introduced with little consultation and discussion, and people largely shrugged and complied. It must have been tempting for the government to imagine that it was in a familiar world of unbridled authority. But ever since the first lockdown was eased, the exercise of authority has waned.
In October, we saw a full-scale contest for political authority break out between Westminster and the governments of Scotland and Wales, along with Manchester and Liverpool. The latter may be formally subservient, but they found that they could enter the contest to influence public behaviour with a vengeance. Belatedly, Downing Street sought to achieve consensus, realising that discord is a recipe for confusion and an excuse for non-compliance.
This outbreak of modest reasonableness did not last long, however. In December some local authorities responded to rising infection rates with plans for school closures. Out came the iron fist of the Education Secretary to force them to stay open. Of course, he might have made the right call, but what is striking is the love of central diktat and the willingness to take risks with exercising it.
Is there any check on this government, or do we have to put up with another four years of this? In optimistic moments, we might find solace in the disorder in Parliament. Johnson may feel that the Conservative Party owes its 2019 victory to him, but MPs have a stronger loyalty to their party than to his leadership. Normally, he would be able to secure compliance with the promise of future favours, but a surprisingly large number of MPs seem to be placing little value on that promise.
It is a sorry state of affairs when deliverance rests on a motley assortment of backbench MPs, but other institutions seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the government’s waste and incompetence. In his Ditchley lecture, Gove complained about the mechanisms that impede the wholesale waste of public money on ministers’ pet projects, taking a swipe at the National Audit Office, parliamentary select committees and even the Treasury. But as we find out more about how the government has burned through cash in the pandemic, so we also learn that these mechanisms have no teeth. Civil servants have repeatedly been overridden and ignored. Once upon a time, ministers blanched when asked for direction to undertake expenditure that fails to meet established standards of value and propriety; now, they readily sign on the dotted line.
In equating effective government with elective dictatorship, Gove expressed a view that has enjoyed undue influence in British political culture. His image of accountability and responsibility is also a reductive expression of widely held beliefs. Responsibility is treated as a question of who should resign when things go wrong, while accountability happens just once every five years. As the death toll mounts and the economy tanks, it is small comfort for failure that we know who to blame.
This is a shortened and updated version of Deborah Mabbett’s commentary ‘Testing the limits of elective dictatorship’ in issue 91 (4) of the Political Quarterly.