In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus, musing upon how to save Rome, considers the risk of Caesar, upon being crowned, turning on those who have lifted him up, ‘scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend’.
This is not a concern that anyone who helped Boris Johnson rise to power can empathise with, given Johnson has spent his premiership – including much of the government’s pandemic response – distributing the nation’s largesse to those who paved his path to No. 10, rather than to those who can best help the nation. Nor is this largesse merely pecuniary, with the prime minister showing a hitherto unrevealed side to his character by remaining resolutely faithful to his ministerial allies, keeping them in post regardless of how incompetent (Gavin Williamson), how venal (Robert Jenrick), or how malignant (Priti Patel) they may be.
Such corruption and cronyism is fatal to effective government. It dispenses with the normal rules of engagement, turning what should be a democratically accountable institution into the personal fiefdom of the prime minister, where he governs through whims and partisan interests, rather than being guided and bound by rules, conventions and principles. Not only is this harmful from an economic perspective, with the Chancellor’s statement to the House showing how parlous the UK’s finances are, but harmful to the functioning of government. As well as being able to ill afford money being wantonly spent on goods and services that achieve nothing but to line the pockets of Cabinet ministers’ friends and allies, the nation cannot function under a government run on secrecy, deception and hypocrisy.
Little demonstrates this gaping void of principle more than the long suppressed independent report into the Home Secretary’s conduct in office. Reports that accuse – or absolve – ministers of bullying are not supposed to sit on the prime minister’s desk until he decides it is politically advantageous for them to be released, or until an involved party decides that enough is enough, and leaks it to the press. While Patel’s conduct is egregious, and while she should be well on her way out of an office that she never should have held in the first place, the fact that the prime minister had the report sitting on his desk for months, and doubtless would have kept it there, is equally appalling.
If Downing Street had its way, this concealment and deception would form the core of its communications strategy. The prime minister is allergic to scrutiny, repeatedly ducking interviews with Andrew Neil, the BBC’s former interrogator-in-chief, during the 2019 election campaign, and banning ministers from appearing on Channel 4 News and Radio 4’s Today programme because their presenters did their jobs properly, subjecting him and his government to rigorous questioning.
Meanwhile, whenever he appears at Prime Minister’s Questions, he spends more time trying to pin a nickname on Keir Starmer than engaging with the questions he is asked. The appointment of Allegra Stratton as press secretary is a further attempt to restrain the media, funnelling them and their questions through a fully briefed political operative, ensuring that the government line is precisely toed, and reducing the risk of unfavourable facts and figures breaking out into the public domain.
Secrecy is the foe of democracy. For a democratic government to rule legitimately, it must govern with the people’s consent, and consent can only be properly given when it is informed. If a nation’s people are left in the dark, groping for facts about how their executive is governing, it is a democracy in name alone. Preferring opacity and mendacity may be desirable in the short-term, but in the long run in undermines public trust, and this, in turn, erodes the willingness of the public to follow where the government tries to lead. In normal times, such failure may harm the government’s policy ambitions, but at during a pandemic, such a lack of faith is ruinous for the health- physical, social, and economic- of the entire nation.
It is this need for faith that explains why courts and inquiries are ordinarily so adamant about the need for transparency in judicial processes. If people, both the parties involved and interested bystanders, are kept informed, able to bear witness to all the same information that the arbiters receive, they will be more willing to accept whatever decision is handed down. It is when people sense that the wool is being pulled over their eyes that they become recalcitrant.
Unfortunately, this principle has been turned on its head in the the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which began hearing evidence this month. This inquiry is investigating the undercover tactics used by police forces to infiltrate political organisations since 1968, but, ironically, has preferred to hear evidence in a manner that conflicts with the need for open and transparent justice. Ordinarily, inquiries are reasonably accessible to the public, while recognising that at times, they raise politically sensitive matters not suited to the public domain, with Lord Toulson asking in Kennedy v The Charity Commission, a Supreme Court case concerning the principles of open justice in inquiries, ‘how …an unenlightened public [is] to have confidence that the responsibilities for conducting quasi-judicial inquiries are properly discharged?’.
In contrast to the Grenfell Inquiry, which is continuing to run during the pandemic and is streaming oral evidence online, the evidence given to the SpyCops Inquiry is available via text alone, with no audio or video, available, but instead a live transcript that cannot be paused or rewound. This makes it virtually impossible for the media to effectively report on the proceedings, with Dominic Casciani, the BBC Home Affairs correspondent, tweeting that the livestream is ‘virtually unusable’.
Parallel to this, Sir John Mitting, the retired High Court judge running the inquiry, has been willing to approve a range of applications that seek to conceal the identities- both real and assumed – of the officers involved, on the basis that disclosing their real names may expose them to risk and violate their right to privacy. While in some cases, this may be plausible, most of the organisations these officers were sent into were peaceful, and they were last undercover decades ago. There is little to no real threat to them, but preventing their identities from being revealed frustrates the purpose they are giving evidence for- it stops those who were spied upon from being able to properly question and challenge their evidence. Instead, these campaigners and their lawyers will have to fly blind, still unsure as to who the undercover operatives really were. In turn, this renders the inquiry pointless, landing the taxpayer with a significant bill (with the inquiry having already cost 23m, and due to run for another three years), while doing enough to raise the ire and frustration of the campaigners, but nothing to redress their concerns.
All governments sometimes need secrecy. The public do not need to know about all of the unpleasant realities that running a government can involve. But the default position should be in favour of transparency, not secrecy. Independent reports like that by Sir Alex Allen into Priti Patel’s conduct as Home Secretary should not be locked in the prime minister’s desk, in the hope that the nation forgets about it, but subject to independent authority that can authorise their release, while procurement contracts and appointments to the government should be transparent, with executive positions in government also required to abide by clear and open recruitment processes. Little good comes from secrecy, but, as the SpyCops Inquiry is showing us, much harm can.