Man walks into a column, no.12: Constitution

Two excellent, thought-provoking openDemocracy pieces caught my eye this week, and made me think about how clarity of expression is crucial if policy-makers are to be held to account and, conversely, how opacity is the despot’s dream.

First, Charter 88 co-founder Stuart Weir uses this article to systematically excoriate Gus O’Donnell’s Cabinet Manual – the guide for ministers and civil servants to help them understand how the different branches of UK government relate to one another. I won’t try to summarise his arguments here – the full thing is really worth a read – but what particularly struck me was Weir’s criticism of the Manual for it’s intentional vagueness:

The terminology of the document … reflects the interests of the executive in ambiguity and generality rather than, say, the need for clear rules. This is a document of ‘usuallys’ and ‘shoulds’ rather than ‘musts’. There are scores of ‘shoulds’.

To take just one example cited, the Manual says ‘Ministers should consider publishing bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, where it is appropriate to do so’ – what a perfect example of a sentence that’s constructed with wriggle-room in mind!

Weir also says that ‘…there is no place in the document for the people. They, or we, remain peripheral throughout this account’ and suggests that any document like this which, in substance, is the closest we have to a written constitution, ‘should be created by a widespread deliberative and transparent process that ends with the people’.

That the extent of consultation on this document thus far is paltry – three months which included the Christmas break – is indisputable. But it’s interesting to note, for example, that the Convention which drafted that most elegant and enduring of founding documents, the US Constitution, agreed to keep its discussions private, in order that delegates could speak freely. My own view is that something as complex and contentious as a constitution has to be drafted by elected representatives (otherwise: no legitimacy), but that doesn’t mean being constructed in open forum. Otherwise the result would be a mishmash; a dog’s dinner.

Of course you can draft in private, consult in public, and the main point made – that the language used should be clear, precise, attractive, even – is just so important. Because in the absence of the United States’ checks and balances (a federal polity, a bicameral legislature where no chamber is overweening, a separate executive) governments can and will use any lack of clarity to do what it wants and avoid doing what it doesn’t.

Vague. Unclear. Opaque. Remind you of a major policy agenda? Step forward, the Big Society. A reform programme in need of clear thinking and well-crafted policies if ever there was one. Thankfully, help is at hand, and my second openDemocracy pick is this article by Demos Senior Fellow Michael Edwards, which does an admirable job of putting the Big Society in the context of attempts throughout history to strengthen civil society.

Edwards says that historically, civil society has flourished under two sets of conditions. Either things are really bad – with mass protest flaring in the face of outright oppression, or economic prosperity is so widespread that a wide range of people can get involved in movements that (more gradually than uprisings) improve social welfare. By contrast, says Edwards, ‘during times of rising poverty and inequality, efforts by governments to stimulate civil society through special projects have never had much effect’ and…

This is why America has experienced a systematic decline in most measures of civic life since the 1970s, despite the fact that governments of every political stripe have poured money into state-sponsored volunteering schemes, community-development corporations, faith-based initiatives, social innovation funds and the like. Such initiatives are too small, too transitory, and too driven by professional elites with no roots in the community.

The Coalition, on the other hand, is having to take a piecemeal approach, because it’s too conservative to consider redistributive policies. This is, thinks Edwards ‘…akin to building a house while simultaneously weakening the foundations, and hoping that new wallpaper and other special touches will paper over the cracks that result.’

Whereas Edwards’ piece is persuasive, precise and detailed, this special report in The Economist on the future of the state couldn’t be more of a contrast. Following a haphazard canter through successive attempts to avoid, build, maintain and reduce a ‘big state’, we are told that Cameron is ‘at the front of a great wave’, that his Big Society idea is impressive for its ‘breadth of ambition’ and, as such, he resembles that great hero of the free market liberals, good ol’ Maggie. And apparently the impact of the spending cuts can be summed up thus: ‘Manchester is in turmoil because it will be reduced to only one public lavatory.’

This statement, which is frankly breathtaking in terms of the number of liberties it takes with past evidence and future assumptions, is pretty typical:

…pluralism could lead to a much smaller civil service than anyone thinks. “Once you start letting people compete, it is incredible how few people you need in the centre,” says one of Britain’s most senior mandarins.

Letting this aspiration of a certain Sir Humphrey go unchallenged is quite a lapse of editorial control. What about regulation and quality control? What evidence is there that during previous periods of pluralist reform (e.g. the introduction of CCT in the 90s, or the health reforms of the 80s), the centre ever decreased in size? Are we really saying the civil service is going to stand idly by whilst it’s decimated?

If we talk and write about big, difficult issues using glib statements, and if we allow our politicians to frame complex conditions with woolly words, we undermine democracy. The clearer and more specific we are, the better we all know where we stand.

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