Artillery Row

Why are our politicians afraid of politics?

The depoliticisation of policy should concern us all

Eight years ago, during the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove was widely reported to have announced that we’ve all “have had enough of experts”. The misquote spread across the media with Vote Leave branded climate change deniers who hated all innovation, science, or technology. 

The full quote rather spoils the mythology. In reality, Gove responded to a question about the lack of institutional support for Vote Leave with the assertion:

I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.

Rather duller a comment, but far more prescient. If only Gove’s own party had followed this advice. Experts are amazing for developing vaccines, curing cancer, and starting podcasts. They are somewhat less good at the business of running the country — and, as Gove was correct to point out – they do seem to get it consistently wrong. 

Given that we have decided that Britain should be a representative democracy, it doesn’t seem all that controversial to say that “organisations with acronyms” probably shouldn’t be running the show. Unfortunately, owing partly to a series of interventions by the Conservatives, they very much are. 

It’s a shame that Gove’s quote was never really reported correctly. Had it been, the press might have drawn some attention to the gradual erosion of democracy in this country as power is handed over to regulators, arm’s length bodies, and non-governmental organisations. 

During the pandemic, it was SAGE who pressured the Prime Minister to pursue repeated lockdowns. While the organisation doesn’t technically wield administrative power, it proved easy for them to dictate government policy. In a prospective future inquiry, it’s much simpler for a Prime Minister to claim that they’re “following SAGE advice” than to plead that their decision was informed by sound political principles and a working understanding of the science.

Communications regulator Ofcom exercises enormous power over what we’re allowed to watch. They’ve repeatedly targeted GB News for breaches of impartiality and have found that “a politician cannot be a newsreader” — although David Lammy’s regular appearances as an anchor on LBC have not seen him sanctioned. Natural England, our environmental watchdog, have scuppered house building plans due to their nutrient neutrality rules that prevent developments which could raise phosphate and nitrate levels in rivers. One day, I only hope that people will have as many rights as our precious water table.

In the week that all major parties unveil their manifestos, all eyes are on what each leader plans to do. Rather more interestingly, readers ought to ask each leader which decision making powers they plan to give away.

The Conservatives have promised to introduce an annual cap on migration — excluding graduate visas, one of the most popular routes. The party that trebled net migration since 2019, despite an explicit promise to do the opposite, owes its voters a commitment to radically change the system. And yet — how is the cap to be decided? While MPs will get the vote on the final number, they will do so guided by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC). The number put to a vote will be one chosen by a non-departmental body with no democratic accountability.

Labour have announced their plans to empower the OBR to forecast all tax and spending changes, promising that such oversight would  have prevented Liz Truss’ mini-budget. While the Chancellor would technically be free to ignore a negative OBR forecast, in practice doing so would submit a budget to slaughter by the press, the City, and most likely their own MPs. As such, this reform will likely see all taxation and spending decisions subject to permission from another unelected body.

Moving to the frying of slightly smaller fish — the Liberal Democrats are promising to create a new independent regulator for football. This is a position that the three major parties seem to agree on. 

All of these issues are areas of contentious debate. They’re issues that matter to large groups of voters. Historically, party leaders would have been forced to consider their base, adjudicate on the question, and put forward a solution. Instead, Gove’s much despised “organisations with acronyms” are offering politicians a way out — a way to kick the political football aside and hand over power to a non-departmental body no one has heard of, and no one can ever question. 

Next time the Culture Secretary is hauled onto the Today Programme to answer questions about the European Super League, or the collapse of a beloved but mismanaged club, they can simply answer that “this is a matter for the football regulator”. 

When Sunak is asked by a journalist to set a target for net migration, he can explain that he couldn’t possibly say without commissioning a consultation run by the MAC. If the numbers seem too high, you should take it up with them, not the government.

The rise of the quangocracy cannot be blamed solely on Tony Blair, who so often bears the brunt of criticism. This particular rot belongs just as much to David Cameron, who gave oversight of our budgets to the OBR, to Margaret Thatcher, who so foolishly trusted the artistic establishment to manage the distribution of grants, and to Clement Attlee, who kicked off the whole project with a Beveridge-inspired flurry of institutional erection. 

Nobody knows who is behind the quangos. The public can’t vote them out and in many cases the Secretary of State isn’t even empowered to get rid of an errant Chief Executive. Instead, they slowly usher in the rise of a regulatory vetocracy– where more and more decisions are taken out of political hands. It seems that both major parties are united in the belief that the people can’t possibly be trusted to know what’s best for them. 

This doesn’t need to be the state of play. Quangos aren’t hard to abolish

When the NHS is embroiled in a scandal, it is the Health Secretary that is hauled up in front of the despatch box to explain why and promise to do better. No one would ever ask Amanda Pritchard, Chief Executive of NHS England, to explain herself on TV or in the papers.

Populist support across Europe, and in the UK, seems to hinge on the belief that the power of the electorate is gradually being cannibalised by a small number of elite institutions. This isn’t a conspiracy – in Britain it’s the reality of our political system. This doesn’t need to be the state of play. Quangos aren’t hard to abolish. It would take a brave Prime Minister a few lines of legislation to bring these powers back into government hands — anybody serious about the business of governing owes it to the public to do this.

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