They should have dropped the Code of Conduct, not the minister
The manufactured scandal over David Blunkett's earnings shows up the problem of over-regulation.
Contrary to the qualifications that his Tory critics generally make, David Blunkett – the work and pensions secretary who resigned from the New Labour Cabinet today – is not a very likeable man.
Senior Labour Party figures imagine that his rough manners appeal to working-class people in a way that more effete politicians do not. His current difficulties, where he has been forced to resign over a job he held for a few weeks earlier this year, suggest that such appeal is limited: there is no groundswell of popular support, and the right-wing papers that backed him in the past now publish editorials attacking him.
Being unlikeable, though, is not always a bad thing. There are times when politicians should confront public opinion rather than bending to it. Unfortunately, Blunkett’s history is one of playing to an imaginary gallery of right-wing bigots. As home secretary he was forthright in his attacks on the ‘liberati’ – supporters of civil rights. That meant cranking up fears of other people – whether high street ‘yobs’ or Islamic fundamentalists – to increase police powers.
But these days public opinion – which rarely extends much further than newspaper comment pages anyway – is fickle. The same thin skins that shrink from ‘anti-social behaviour’ dislike judgemental politicians. Fear of other people can lead to a fear of the state as much as a demand for more police powers. And Blunkett’s authoritarianism did offend the Westminster village. No other minister has been the butt of both a West End play and a comedy docudrama on television.
A campaign against Blunkett’s attacks on civil liberties as home secretary would have been a good idea (see This is no way to bring down Bush and Blunkett, by Brendan O’Neill). And no doubt there are criticisms of his work at pensions (though he seems to have restrained prime minister Tony Blair’s desire for savings there). But instead Blunkett has once again been attacked over his private life.
Setting aside the ‘is she really going out with him?’ stories about his love life, the more recent demands for Blunkett’s resignation were over his directorship of the DNA Bioscience firm, the £15,000 shares he was paid, and since then more undeclared earnings in the private sector after he stood down as home secretary at the end of last year.
Nobody has suggested that Blunkett has been bribed, so what is the problem? His difficulties stem from the Code of Conduct for Ministers, which says that he ought to have sought advice from the Independent Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Confusingly, the advice the Committee offers is not binding, but the injunction to seek advice is so, according to cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell.
The Code of Conduct for Ministers used to be an internal civil service document called Questions of Procedure for Ministers. In the 1990s, journalists seized on it as a potential statutory constraint on government. At a time when the left had run out of arguments against the then Conservative government, allegations of sleaze and corruption stood in their place.
In government, Labour prime minister Blair beefed up Questions of Procedure, making it a real Code of Conduct, even creating an independent parliamentary standards commissioner to demonstrate that his government would be ‘whiter than white’.
The problem was that, like the Special Prosecutor’s Office in America, the standards commissioner – Elizabeth Filkin – had nothing to do but look for scandals. And malicious allegations against rival politicians kept her busy. In the end, the government forced Filkin out of the job.
Practically, the government had learned the lesson that an excess of regulation makes it impossible to obey the rules. So much was against the code that everybody was in breach of it to some extent, if only for forgetting to declare trivial incomes here and there. It was available to anyone to press the case against any politician.
The effect of this surfeit of regulation is that few people take the code very seriously, since every MP knows of someone, like Blunkett, who has inadvertently and innocently breached the code.
The answer to the problem was not to force Blunkett to resign – it was to get rid of the Code of Conduct. The way to hold politicians to account is at the ballot box, not in secret committee. And maybe even Blunkett could understand that just as excessive regulation makes it impossible for MPs to know where they stand, excessive laws make it hard for the public to respect the law, too.
James Heartfield is a writer based in London. He will be talking at ‘Future Cities: Nature vs Technology’ at the ICA, London, on 9 November. Visit his website here.
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