Published June 29, 2007
Politics and Policy
It seems the hand over of power has taken years, but at last it has happened. And it is clear that Gordon Brown is determined to make an immdeiate impact. This is a new administration.
His first act was to limit the power of politicial appointees. Tony Blair had given his political aides, Jonathan Powell and Alistair Campbell, authority over civil servants, a significant departure from the accepted separation of politics and administration. Gordon has stopped that. This signals a much more formal approach to the workings of Downing Street and Cabinet. Has Gordon been reading the Liverpool MPA Blog? Is our influence growing? Alas, it is more likely that he has read the Butler Report.
His Cabinet reshuffle then took a very particular form. The list of names included some intersting choices. John Denham resigned over Iraq but is now back. David Miliband’s meteoric rise continues, despite his dissenting viewson some of the key issues of recent years. Was there a deal made to dissuade him from standing against Gordon? But, aside from the names and the changes to the structure of Whitehall, there was one more interesting feature. Those who have left the Cabinet were offered the opportunity to fall on their own sword and resign first. And it was all done in the House of Commons, rather than in the full glare of the Downing Street political correspondents and the cameras. There is a degree of consideration evident here that is rarely seen in the political world.
Next, and after some significant speeches and briefings, the centrality of constitutional reform is clear. A second Cabinet meeting today will discuss this alone. The next few months will be interesting times for students of public administration in the UK.
One final remark. As Gordon moves in, three more soldiers died in Iraq – two from in or near Gordon’s own constituency. Will Gordon meet the relatives of some of those who have died in Iraq? Now, that really would be a new administration.
News here has been full of allegations of bribery in connection with an arms deal between BAE Systems and the Saudi government. The deal took place in the mid 1980s and was worth billions of pounds. For more than twenty years, there have been suggestions, evidence and articles that the deal was obtained, over French and US competition, by corruption.
It is back in the news now because investigations by the Serious Frad Office were recently halted. Why is unclear. Two reasons have been offered: because there was no prospect of prosecution; and because of national security interests. Of the two, the first is probably untrue and the second is an excuse for embarrassment. Now we hear that international investigations were frustrated and not provided with all the relevant evidence, notably a bribe of £1 billion to Proince Bandar of the Saudi royal family. Further details can be read at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/baefiles/story/0,,2100761,00.html. Anyone wanting to know more should also watch the Yes Minister episode on the subject of corruption: The Moral Dimension from series three.
There are a number of intertesting aspects to this story. First, like Paul Wolfowitz’s behaviour, it undermines the ability of UK officials to talk about ‘good governance’ when discussing aid and debt cancellation. Indeed, the retort has been publicly used by some aid agencies.
Second, while since 2002, bribery abroad by UK companies has been illegal, the legal postion in the 1980s was less clear. That it was immoral is fairly clear.
So why is the current government so embarrassed? After all, it all happened under the Conservatives. This is the third and perhaps most interesting aspect. The case reveals the close links between government and the arms trade. Former ministers, MPs and retired civil servants sit on company boards. Ministry of Defence civil servants and executives in the trade regularly exchange places to bring ‘commercial’ sense to the workings of Whitehall. It is all very cosy and not at all like Weber’s model of bureaucracy. Civil servants have too close a relationship with their commercial friends. How can they contract effectively? How can they oversee and licence the trade effectively? Is it any surprise to find they may have covered up for colleagues facing corruption investigations?
All this when BAE Systems is hoping for another giant contract with the Saudi government. No wonder nobody wants anyone looking too closely at the past – it might also embarrass the Saudis.