How did this happen?
Peter Hennessy is one of the foremost historians of modern British constitutional history around- he might well be the
foremost historian of that subject alive. So his appearances in the media are always worth catching- he also has a wonderfully camp sense of humour and a nice gossipy tone to his discussion of politics. He recently did an interview with the new internet television station 18 Doughty Street which you can listen to here
in which he talked about a number of things ranging from the nuclear button under Clement Attlee to the Iraq War and Tony Blair.
Hennessy has long been very critical of Blair over Iraq. Particularly over what he (Hennessy) regards as a neglect of due process and constitutional form. In his interview he draws attention to the two reports by Butler and Hutton which severely criticised the government's handling of Iraq. He also argued that the cabinet had failed in its duty to maintain a sufficient awareness of the issue. He said that it wasn't the cabinet who had demanded that the legal rationale be provided but the permanent civil servants and revealed that the cabinet never asked for a written statement of the case for war, though civil servants had produced one, but relied upon an oral presentation by the Prime Minister.
Hennessy is right. What he reveals (and most of it is publically known) is an indictment of the present cabinet government of Britain. What it reveals is a structural fault in the way that the present Cabinet conducts itself- they don't ask questions, they don't press the Prime Minister and responsible ministers, they don't act as the nation's council in chief and they let themselves be bamboozled into making decisions relying on verbal arguments and assurances instead of written statements and evidence.
The question though is why is this happening. Hennessy doesn't really have the time in his interview to delve into this. But this isn't the first time that a British cabinet has behaved so supinely- they did so under Margerate Thatcher as well though not quite as badly. Nor are these unintelligent men and women- Gordon Brown's intelligence is rightly lauded, Robin Cook was considered as able a forensic debater as any in his generation, Hillary Benn is looked on as a serious thinker.
There is in my opinion something else going on- Professor Hennessy made an extremely germaine observation when he told his interviewer to look back at what politicians grew up with in order to understand them- I think in order to understand this we need to look back on what these politicians grew through.
The formative experience of most of the politicians sitting round that table in 2003 was that of massive defeat followed by massive victory. During the years of defeat they knew a time, when they were acquiring their political spurs, when the Labour party couldn't put a foot right. Then in the early 1990s the conservative party imploded during a massive debate about Europe, and Labour suddenly couldn't put a foot wrong. Simply put they learnt two lessons- firstly you must tack to the centre of British politics to win elections and secondly you must under no circumstances look divided.
What does that second phrase look divided mean. In the 1950s, the previous generation's forcing ground, look divided meant hatred, it meant the kind of hatred nursed over many years- symbolised by Bevin's comment about Gaitskill being his own worst enemy, "not while I'm alive he ain't" the terse trade unionist is said to have said. But in the 1980s and 1990s that is not what disunity came to mean- disunity meant disagreement. Disunity meant the government losing a vote, it meant MPs rebelling against the leadership.
Talk to me minister
The second key aspect is the way that television worked. Go back fifty years and look at the great Labour Government of the forties which brought in the British welfare state, their names like the names of Henry V's comrades trip off the tongue, Bevin and Bevan, Cripps and Morrison- Attlee the Prime Minister was of course a key figure but he never dominated and definitely not to the extent that Blair does today. The public face of the Labour party changed depending on the region and the person- for a Welsh miner it was the great fiery orator Bevan, for a trade unionist Bevin, for a Londoner Morrison etc today the face of the Labour party is Blair or Brown (and that division is a weakness), the face of the Tories is now Cameron. The spotlight has excluded the cabinet- to come back into it they have to struggle, they have to be disloyal.
Structurally therefore the British system has changed. What Hennessy rightly argues is that this leaves us open to problems- huge problems. Elected dictators will make mistakes and big ones like Iraq. But whereas Hennessy attributes this to the problem of twenty individuals who are suppine and lack the moral fibre to stand in the places once stood in by Bevan and Bevin, by the saints of yester year, I think there is something more insidious going on.
The power of the media has turned the cabinet table from a collection of barons of warring tribes, into a collection of Prime Ministerial satallites. We face a situation in which they cannot and do not scrutinise- the world has changed and not for the better.