Britain needs to clean up its politics by reforming Whitehall and Westminster – just as it did in the 19th century

Prof David Howarth, a commissioner on the UK Governance Project, outlines proposals that seek to fix defects in our political system increasingly exploited by those in power.

For much of the last century, the central issue in British politics was how big government should be – how much should it take in tax and how much should it spend.

Increasingly, however, a different issue is coming to the fore. One that loomed large in the middle of the 19th century but which has, perhaps complacently, long been treated in Britain as solved: the quality of government; its honesty, integrity and capability.

The 19th century saw reforms of the civil service (the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms), of the army (abolition of purchasing commissions), of the electoral system (the Great Reform Act, the Ballot Act and legislation against corrupt practices) and of parliamentary accountability for public spending (the Exchequer and Audit Departments Act and the Public Accounts Committee).

All of these reforms contributed to the creation of an institutional state that – even if one disagreed with its policies and the values it promoted – was at least on the whole honest and capable.

But recent events have undermined the reputation of the British state for integrity and effectiveness. Not least the actions of a Prime Minister who repeatedly lied to Parliament and committed criminal offences while in Downing Street.

Whether accepting large donations while in office for allegedly personal purposes, giving honours to and appointing to the House of Lords a set of cronies, or using threats to break international law as a bargaining chip, these events were not just the foibles of a particular individual.

In fact, they illustrate a fundamental weakness of Britain's system of government: that it depends too much on the honesty and probity of individual 'good chaps', and not enough on checks and balances. In particular, the power accumulated over decades in Number 10 means that the Prime Minister has become a single point of failure for the whole system.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's first PMQs. Credit: UK Parliament

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's first PMQs. Credit: UK Parliament

The best way to deal with a single point of failure is not to search optimistically for a better component to insert into the weak spot, although that would undoubtedly help, but to design the problem out of the entire system. That is the task which the UK Governance Project, of which I was one of the Commissioners, took on.

The brief was to make proposals that would help to restore integrity and capability to Britain's system of government. But, like all design briefs, it came with a series of constraints.

Proposals needed to be inexpensive and implementable by simple, non-controversial means e.g. by ministerial action, changes in the Standing Orders of the Houses of Commons or by straightforward short Bills.

Any reforms must also be non-partisan, to the extent that they should be politically palatable to any government that cared about standards in public life. This meant that we did not consider larger scale reforms, such as the introduction of proportional representation or a new second chamber (even though many of us favour such reforms).

Lastly, proposals must not reduce the effectiveness of government by circumscribing the power of the Prime Minister so much that it interferes with the proper conduct of business.

The result is the Project's Report, which contains 11 sets of recommendations, grouped into four themes: restoring high ethical standards in public life, enhancing the role of Parliament, repairing the relationship between the Government and the Civil Service, and protecting democracy.

Under the first theme, recommendations include enshrining the ethical aspects of the Ministerial Code into law, and creating a statutory commissioner to oversee it. Rules about conflicts of interest should be changed so that ministers cannot escape scrutiny by exploiting differences between the Ministerial Code and the obligations of members of Parliament. Additionally, the power of the Prime Minister to create peerages without obtaining approval by an independent body should cease, alongside all 'political' honours.

Under the second theme, we recommend ending the ability of the Government unilaterally to set the agenda of the House of Commons and establishing a concordat under which the Government would stop the practice of introducing Bills with no content apart from granting wide powers to ministers ('Skeleton Bills'), and clauses that give ministers powers to alter Acts of Parliament ('Henry VIII clauses').

Under the third theme, we call for a clear legal rule that ministers must not instruct civil servants to act in ways that are contrary to the Civil Service Code, in particular to act in a politically partial or dishonest way.  In addition, we recommend that Permanent Secretaries should be given clearer objectives and that the roles and numbers of Special Advisers should be limited.

Finally, under the fourth theme we recommend ending the powers of ministers to set strategic objectives for the Electoral Commission, giving the Commission an overall duty to protect parliamentary democracy, and enhancing its investigatory and prosecutorial powers in order to do so.

Taken alone, none of these reforms is transformational, but their cumulative effect would be set our system of government on a very different course from the one it is currently following, which is creating dangerous levels of public distrust in political institutions, and they might help to set the conditions for more system-wide reforms.

Prof David Howarth is Professor of Law and Public Policy at Cambridge and a Fellow of Clare College. Until recently he was Head of Department of the Department of Land Economy. He is the author of Law as Engineering: Thinking about what lawyers do (2013) and ‘Westminster versus Whitehall: What the Brexit Debate Revealed About an Unresolved Conflict at the Heart of the British Constitution’ in O. Doyle, A, McHarg, and J. Murkens, eds. The Brexit Challenge for Ireland and the United Kingdom: Constitutions Under Pressure. Cambridge University Press; 2021:217-238. From 2010 to 2018 he served as an Electoral Commissioner of the United Kingdom and before that he served as a member of the UK House of Commons.

Top image: Double exposure of man looking at the Houses of Parliament. Credit: Jasper James/Getty.

Middle Image: Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's first PMQs in 2019. Credit: UK Parliament (creative commons)