I will start by declaring an interest. I worked for John Major. I liked working for John Major. He was a diligent and thoughtful minister who engaged with arguments and got on well with his civil servants.
On Thursday he came to the Institute for Government to set out his concerns about the current state of British democracy, of democracy round the world, and how the present government’s careless attitude to standards in public life was undermining the UK’s reputation. I used to write speeches for John Major. His speeches are now much more interesting, and this one was an important complement to the speech given last year, also at the IfG, by Lord Evans, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Major’s speech has proved predictably polarising. Those who dislike Brexit, hold Johnson in disdain, even if they never had much time for John Major, have given it full-throated endorsement. Those who supported Brexit – and the prime minister who finally got it “done” – have shut their ears.
Many countries with histories of poor domestic governance look to EU membership as way out of those problems. For them, decision-making and oversight at European level offer a chance of greater stability, or less paralysis and perhaps less corrupted policy making and policy implementation. That was never an argument put forward in the UK – and both sides of our political divide at Westminster would always portray decision-making at European level as opaque and the product of messy compromise, and much inferior to decision-making at home. That argument would be challenged perhaps in Cardiff and Holyrood but even for those who supported EU membership in the UK government, it was a price worth paying for a bigger market and in some cases greater external clout.
But now that decision-making has been repatriated, the government and its supporters should – in theory at least – want to underline how that has improved things: more robust and rigorous decisions replacing horse-trading around the Council table, genuine discussion, proper scrutiny and enhanced accountability; greater responsiveness to citizens and agility to deal with new problems as they emerge. And a government that does not need the overlay of foreign courts and judges to protect due process or the rights of minorities.
The more the government shows an unwillingness to engage properly with Parliament, the less it is willing to subject itself to scrutiny, to be straight with the public or to submit to legal restraint, and the more it shows itself unable to uphold standards, the more it undermines the case that Britain will be better governed without the constraints of EU membership. The sovereigntist/constitutionalist Brexit supporters should be on the frontline demanding the highest of standards from the UK government.
Major argued that the willingness of the UK to threaten to break international law, to act in apparent contravention of domestic law and its tolerance for poor standards of behaviour within government was “shredding” the UK’s global reputation. Since the ability of Britain to become a bigger actor on the international stage, no longer compromised by shared competence in some key areas with the EU, is a big selling point for Brexit for some, this should be a concern.
For some governments – in the EU, the Biden administration, the Trudeau government – the perceived folly of Brexit meant the UK government’s reputation had already taken a hit. But for many other countries it was a domestic choice about which they cared little – and for some it offered new opportunities, for trade deal or for a more level migration playing field. In many places the UK has had a reputation – particularly among critics of local regimes – as a bastion of high standards of governance. In many of those places the UK’s reputation is now suffering from the triple whammy of domestic scandal, a poorly executed overseas aid cut combined with attacks on some of the more admired UK institutions, like the BBC. Global Britain cannot afford to be burning that goodwill.
Major’s fire was turned on the Johnson government – and it is clear that there is a strong element of mutual loathing. But problems did not start with Johnson. Major criticised the long-standing and unaddressed issue of party funding, which forces all parties into unhealthy relations with donors. David Cameron’s Brexit referendum displayed a constitutional casualness. The campaign itself demonstrated deep-seated flaws in the way we regulate elections. Theresa May’s government concealed information from Parliament, ducked and weaved at the despatch box, and railed at parliamentary blockers; and many Remainers appeared hellbent on overturning a result they did not like – opening the way to a government appealing to its mandate from the people. No side can claim a monopoly of virtue.
But the reaction to Major’s speech suggest standards in government and public life are becoming another battlefield in the values war over Brexit. No one emerges victorious from that in the long run.