The Most Urgent Reform of All
By DAVID HOWELL, MP
EDWARD HEATH made an interesting speech recently on the theme of 'the open society.' What did he mean? According to Mr Heath, the administrative processes of Whitehall, have become screened from the public gaze by 'opaque: windows.' The time had come to let 'light flood in and fresh breezes blow' on our secretive Gov- ernment and allow people to see how the policies which affect them all wdre made and carried out.
When one comes to think about it the theme is a courageous one for a man in Mr Heath's position to be promoting. For one thing, if Par- liament and the public are to be allowed to peer in on the making of policy, life for the policy- makers, whether ministers or high officials, is going to get a good deal rougher as more and more decisions have to be justified in public. For another thing, once MPs are allowed to get their teeth into policy, whether through all- party specialist committees or any other new machinery, tight central control of party policy is bound to be weakened. As experience shows in Estimates sub-committees, for instance, the atmosphere tends to dilute, and in some cases eliminate, what are supposed to be the official party differences.
The fact remains that Mr Heath is entirely right to take this line. Just as there is a growing demand within the Conservative party for less central control and more debate, so the most urgent reform on anational scale is to enlarge the area of public debate on public policy. It is more urgent than tax reform, more urgent than trade union reform, more urgent than getting into the European Community.
Take, for example, the whole question of the Government's economic policy. Who really knows what it is? Who knows how the Govern- ment views the national plan or bow public officials and advisers see the situation shaping up in four months, let alone four years?
The public's role in the matter, through Par- liament, is ludicrously inadequate. There is the occasional big debate, which may have its spec- tacular moments but as an informative exercise hardly qualifies at all, and the occasional Question Time. Any idea that economic minis- ters are put on the spot at Question Time can be dismissed. All questions can be stone- walled by the standard parliamentary answers and even if a minister gets off balance the House has been hustled on to the next question before there can be any damaging follow-up.
The net effect is to ensure that economic policy is not even revealed, let alone discussed. No minister is ever made to perspire under the pressure of a single really informed questioner who has got hold of a point and doesn't intend to let it go. None of the officials who help make the crucial policy decisions, or decide not to make the decisions, are ever brought blinking into the light of day to explain their views.
It may be argued that they do get put through the hoop by the Public Accounts Committee and it is true that the PAC does valuable work on past spending, just as the Estimates Committee does on current spending. But neither body can examine or criticise the policies from which the spending decisions flow, let alone move on to broader questions of economic strategy.
We shall never know, for instance, why the Department of Economic Affairs has been such
a consistently useless advocate for economic ex- pansion, or what advice and counter-advice led up to the almost childishly crude approach to the national plan and to growth which the de- partment adopted, thus dooming itself in the process.
Yet these, were and are matters of vital con- cern for public confidence. Are Government forecasts to be trusted or not? Will the Govern- ment stick to its own spending programmes? The public is served neither by unconvincing Government assurances that all is for the best nor by Opposition jibes that Government plans never work out anyway. In the modern economy it happens to be essential to basic business con- fidence, indeed to the morale of everyone hold- ing down &job, that Government economic plans should work. And it is essential to public debate to know where the failures have been and what is being done to correct them.
Economic policy is really the heart of the matter because it effects public confidence in the whole political system. Two of Parliament's jobs are to inform and to criticise and the organised official Opposition should take the lead in both these tasks. Dividing against the Government on noisy motions of censure or general policy issues doesn't begin to measure up to this responsibility.
The Opposition has to know what the Gov- ernment departments are actually doing, as against what ministers care to tell the House about them, and to probe deeply into the pro- cesses of policy shaping and administration— the two aspects being in many cases indistin- guishable from each other.
Not to do so is to fail as an effective Oppo- sition. Not to do so is to ensure that Opposition is factious and partisan rather than revealing and magnetic to all anti-Government feeling, as it should be. Not to do so is to leave the Oppo- sition's mass supporters and party machine groping around trying to make adequate propa- ganda material out of parliamentary shouting matches.
At present the task is inevitably in vain. What an Opposition party needs at the grass roots is clear and continuously replenished evidence of the basic mistakes at the heart of the Govern- ment's main policies. Prolonged assaults on Government Bills are not enough. 'Policy' does not mean legislation only, or, in some cases, at all. It means what the Government departments are really about and the basic assumptions on which they are working.
So if Mr Heath's opaque windows are to be opened it will have to be by bodies which can question the makers of policy properly and probe their decisions. Innovation of this kind will not only decide whether Parliament is efficient. It will also decide whether there is an effective or an ineffective Conservative party in opposition. An effective Opposition is one which in a sense is, or becomes in due course, the voice of the public against the executive. It has to get at what the Government is really doing and gradually unmask it. It has to use its position in Parliament and its party machine in the country to mobilise anti-Government feeling and to indicate possible alternative ways forward.
If, therefore, an Opposition simply cannot get at the processes orgovernment, if it cannot specify what Government policy is In order to shot", it up, it is neutralised. It cannot do its job and it cannot gather support. Since the pro- cesses of government have changed out of all recognition, while the parliamentary machinery for exposing them has not, this is roughly the position in which the Conservative party could find itself any day now.
What can the Opposition leaders do? Either they can sit and wait, attacking Government legislation with a great show of ferocity but leaving the larger part of government unexposed and unchallenged—in the hope that in due course kindly events will carry them back into the comfortable seat of power.
Or they can begin pressing for the new dis- pensation which will make the Opposition effec- tive and the business of government more open, certainly more difficult, possibly more efficient.
If the latter is the right course—as it surely must be—then parliamentary reform and the carnpaign for more 'open' government must be- come central Opposition themes. They must be followed, not just as fashionable and interesting ideas, but as avenues to the revival of the Conservative party in Britain.