Democracy Café: July

Meeting of the Democracy Café, July 2022

This meeting was held following the week in which Boris Johnson was forced to resign as prime minister of Great Britain and the start of the selection process for a new PM. The final straw was the revelations about Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip, and when and how much the prime minister knew of his unwelcome groping of other men. Johnson was found to have lied about the matter and this prompted a series of resignations which rapidly grew to a flood resulting in his departure, although he was still in Downing Street as we speak, and he had formed a new cabinet. The uncertainty surrounding his departure led to the first question we debated: Do we need a written constitution? This is not the first time we have debated this.

Peter Hennessy, a writer on the UK political scene, called our system the ‘good chaps’ model, a kind of echo of Victorian times when gentlemen ran things and there were rules – some unwritten – about they were to behave honourably. This point was made along with the point that one problem with a written constitution was that changing it was difficult. Ireland has such a constitution and they have been able to change it so perhaps it is possible. Mary Dejevsky, writing in the Independent, has argued recent events demonstrate that reliance on the gentlemanly way of running things was no longer tenable and that we needed a written constitution.

The point was made however, that we did have a wide range of rules and procedures governing behaviour, including precedent, but if they were to be brought together who got to decide? If it was parliament then they are likely to do it to suit themselves.

We were brought up short by the question: what is the purpose of a constitution, written or otherwise? Later in the debate the question, what problem does a written constitution solve? I suppose it is fair to say we circled these questions in our debate. We were reminded that we do have a constitution of sorts and that is Magna Carta. Later we had the Great Reform Act. The same speaker noted that Germany’s constitution was written by the Allies after the war. Chile was given as an example and the country, post Pinochet, is engaged in constitutional reform following a period of unrest. Consultations, rather like citizens’ assemblies, have taken place with a wide range of groups including minorities and native Americans. It is about to finish and to be voted on by the people.

Other influences were discussed. These included the old favourite, the media, but also the judiciary and the role of a small group of public schools. If we do have a written constitution, who will police it? The Judges? Apart from the fact they are drawn from a very narrow section of society, who appoints them? They could rule on what was legal, but not necessarily the right thing which was more a matter of judgement. It was noted that Russia has a constitution but it has effectively been ignored by Putin. The media, as we have discussed on many times before, wield enormous power yet are run in the main by individuals who live abroad. It is they who inform the people so it is vital that this duty is carried out as fairly as possible and that the information they provide is as honest and balanced as possible. Are they doing that? Any system – written or otherwise – would require a well informed citizenry.

On this point, it was said that it would be important that any such constitution was available for schools, by implication that it would be written in a plain fashion and jargon free. Someone with young children said they were looking at surveys on line which asked questions about their beliefs and ideas on various issues of the day. This then suggested a political party which most fitted those beliefs. Encouraging, and a shift away from just looking at personalities.

Human rights should be at the heart of any constitution, a sensitive issue at present with the government bent on abolishing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a Bill of Rights. This point was not really pursued.

Finally, we got onto discussing the role of the monarch. After a discussion about King Charles who had argued he could not be tried for treason since he was the king (so could not commit treason against himself I think was the point), we got onto the role of the current Queen in the light of the events of this week. Some commentators had apparently opined that Her Majesty should not be ‘dragged into’ the row over Johnson’s will he/won’t he? shenanigans this week. What then was the point of the monarch? Why have one when it could be argued, there was a pressing need for some kind of final arbiter?

In the second half we moved on to our second question which was the psychology of leadership. It turned out to be closely linked to the first debate. It started naturally enough, with the question of Johnson’s personality. People voted it was said, for politicians like Johnson, who had charisma: the word ‘machismo’ was mentioned. Keir Starmer’s problem was that people thought he lacked it.

This led to a general discussion about personality. To sum up this point, people simply voted for people with a likeable personality. They were not turned on by ‘men in grey suits’ (interesting – we do not have a phrase ‘women in grey skirts’). It was also noted that Johnson was lucky in his opponents: Corbyn and Livingstone.

There has also been a move towards TV debates which favoured those who were good at this kind of activity (products of Oxford University perhaps where they have a debating chamber modelled on the House of Commons). But were they the right people to run things? A highly regarded prime minister was Clem Atlee for example would have been extremely unlikely to get anywhere near No: 10 in today’s climate of celebrity politicians yet was an extremely effective and highly regarded prime minister.

At this point the idea of psychometric testing was introduced. This led onto a discussion of teams and the point that a good team has a variety of personality types. There are various models and tests surrounding this to establish an individuals best place in a team according to their personality.

Various disasters in the armed services had led to a thorough appraisal of leadership and a variety of tests and training to determine leadership skills. Young recruits for example are given various tasks in a group to see how they perform and one of the centres is based in Westbury.

Back to our parliamentary system and the difference is immediately obvious. An MP is selected, not on leadership skills or how they would perform in a team but on how they performed in front of a selection panel. That was often influenced by whether the candidate was seen to be ‘one of us’. Once in parliament they might be selected to become minister following, in some cases, a brief period of ‘training’ as a PPS. There was no training offered for this ministerial role and it is immediately apparent that many individuals are simply not up to the task. Indeed, many who were appointed did so on the basis of their loyalty to the leader not necessarily on their abilities or relevant experience. Since many MPs nowadays were career politicians and many never have had what might be referred to as a ‘real job’, there was precious little of that experience anyway. Is it any surprise then we get the results we do? It’s a wonder it’s not worse in fact. Why cannot the system sort out ‘flaky’ people someone ruefully asked?

Will there be a reaction to the cult of personality following the departure of Johnson? There were many angry people on both sides of the political divide.

We ended with a comment by the journalist Peter Oborne who, speaking at an event in Salisbury some years ago, was asked about Johnson and his reply was ‘he is not a team player’. Greg Dyke was quoted as saying he would ‘not allow [Johnson] to run my bath’.

Two interesting discussions broadly about how our country is run. We have a hotchpotch of a system based on the concept of good chaps who do the right thing when appropriate. Recent events tested this to the limit so maybe we do need some kind of constitution. The people who run it are not selected on their management or team skills but on loyalty to the party and to its leader. There is precious little training in ‘how to be a minister’. Three dysfunctional bits add up to a dysfunctional whole.

Peter Curbishley

Readers might like to read the book Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman (Atlantic Books, 2019) which gives an interesting and quite sympathetic picture of an MP’s life.