By Tom Walsh
In the West, the general public has long been infected with an unfounded superiority complex. “We are a democratic nation!” “We have a system which holds our officials to account!” These kinds of proclamations are regularly heard booming across the Commons. And there is some truth in them: we can, and do, hold politicians to account at every general election. Many significant public figures, such as Nick Clegg, have fallen in recent years, due to broken promises and misdemeanours. But despite some minor successes, democracy in the UK is systemically broken. The reality of our “democracy” is far murkier than we are taught to think, and the recent Cummings saga has shone a revealing light on that.
Let us focus on just one facet of the undemocratic reality of the British system. Special advisers, or spads, have exploded in number since Blair’s premiership. All ministerial departments possess teams of unelected political advisers, and these spads are in the spotlight right now. Dominic Cummings, of Durham School and Klute fame, has caused something of a public awakening to the absurdity of our democratic superiority complex.
During the peak of lockdown, he travelled the length of England with his wife and son, for apparent childcare reasons. At this point, he had coronavirus. Whilst in County Durham, he left the house on a number of occasions, including an infamous trip to Barnard Castle. The fury of the public has been palpable. Many people have followed lockdown regulations to a T. Individuals have been through hell to ensure the safety of vulnerable people across the country. This includes abstaining from seeing their dying loved ones and battling serious mental health problems in isolation.
No matter how much fury is felt across the country, the general public cannot remove Dominic Cummings from power. Power is not the wrong word to use here: this particular spad wields far more than most. Cummings masterminded Brexit, and the Conservative landslide in the last election. In an interview for Channel 5 in February, former spad Peter Cardwell stated that Cummings regularly spoke more than the PM in meetings, and had a huge role in maintaining party discipline. This is not to mention his influence on policy.
He is not the first unelected megalomaniac in this country. Perhaps the most infamous was in fact Alistair Campbell, Blair’s top spad, who had a large role in the “Iraq Dossier”, which distorted evidence for WMDs in Iraq. We are all acutely aware of what this led to. He is also accredited with the abolition of Clause IV, which essentially removed the socialist heart of the Labour Party.
In this country, the PM has, by convention, control over certain royal prerogative powers. Notably, this includes the ability to declare war without mandate. Blair did gain the approval of Parliament for the Iraq War, but the evidence he and his advisers presented MPs was heavily loaded, to produce the result he wanted.
It is not an exaggeration to say that leaders of non-democratic states in the Middle East have many similar powers. Ayatollah Khamenei sanctioned Iranian engagement in Syria. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered Operation Decisive Storm, the air campaign, which marked the beginning of the Yemeni intervention. Both were pre-mediated military decisions. These leaders used a host of advisers to frame the legitimacy of these interventions to both elite, and public, audiences. For, as Vuori writes, ‘even tyrants need people to do their bidding’. They manipulated information to push through their measures, and gain approval, just as Blair and Campbell did to secure the consent of Parliament. Neither Blair, nor Khamenei, nor MBS, actually required this legitimisation, in order to declare war.
Legitimacy works differently in Saudi Arabia, as no framework exists for national elections. However, the success of policy is still heavily dependent upon manipulative propaganda, and careful framing. The Saudi establishment has regularly misrepresented their involvement in Yemen as essential in defeating an expansionist, sectarian Iran. Not so different from Cumming’s “Take back control!” and “Get Brexit done!”, you might notice; much in the same way, complex debates are simplified into loaded sound bites. They played pivotal roles in the successful Brexit referendum, and subsequent Tory landslide.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran has elections of sorts. Their President, Hassan Rouhani, was elected, so too were their “legislative body”. However, secretive organisations of unelected officials have the final say on legislation. The Guardian Council determines whether laws are in contravention of the constitution, or their particular interpretation of Islamic law. It consists of twelve individuals, loyal to and chosen by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
In the UK, special advisers regularly claim that they are consulted on the vast majority of important departmental legislation. They are there to give explicitly political advice and can convince ministers to drop ideas altogether. Although they do not possess formal legislative power, as is the case with The Guardian Council and the unelected princes within the Saudi monarchy, their opinion is treated with the utmost regard by ministers and can shape legislation. Legislation affects us, the general public. As regards spads, we may never know the negative impact they have had on our lives, as there is little to no transparency on their decision-making.
One final observation. The PM and his right hand man play core roles in the selection and removal of spads: Caldwell disclosed, in the aforementioned Channel 5 interview, that his sacking from the Justice Department was a decision made by Cummings himself. The echoes of The Guardian Council are clear: “Be loyal to your Supreme Leader, or you will be removed.” This poses not only a challenge to democracy, but also shines a light on the increasingly totalitarian nature of the role of prime minister.
In the UK, the ideal of democracy is just that, an ideal. In reality there are many features of our system that are in direct contravention of the principles espoused by our “democratic” framework. With over one hundred of these special advisers operating within government, this problem is certainly more systemic than Dominic Cummings’ road trip suggests. Nevertheless, his continued control of power serves as a grotesque example of the realities of unaccountable spad-culture in Westminster.
Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr