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Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Democratic Deficit – 2

Yes, there’s more: in this post I’ll consider the other charge levelled against Pa Broon and his clan, especially in the wake of Friday’s reshuffle, that of an increasing number of cabinet ministers being unelected. Also, I’ll sound a caution against looking too fondly across the pond.

The return of Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet has started off the basic assertion that, as he has not submitted himself to the electorate, he is “unelected”. Well, yes and no. Yes, any appointee to the House of Lords is not elected as an MP has to be. But no, in the UK we do not elect Cabinet Ministers, just as we don’t elect a Prime Minister. It would be a “bridge too far” to have a PM who did not sit in the House of Commons, although that outcome came close in 1940, when it was a toss-up between Churchill and Lord Halifax. But having members of the Cabinet sitting in the Lords is not exceptional.

The Tories had Lords Hailsham and Carrington, the latter holding one of the three great offices of state, as Foreign Secretary. There was no urging against his appointment merely because he sat in the Lords; he left the post as a matter of honour, taking his share of the responsibility for the Argentines getting their hands, however briefly, on the Falkland Islands. Why Mandelson should be considered differently is probably down to his “Prince of Darkness” reputation, and the possibility that the duties could not be performed any better by one or other back-benchers.

Yes, Mandelson is not alone in the current cabinet in being an appointee. However, there is no specific limit on the number of these, although it has become customary to have most Cabinet posts filled by MPs. Like so much in the governance of the UK, it’s a grey area, implicitly working from precedent. So perhaps it’s all different in the USA, where there is a written constitution?

Ah well. The President elect can nominate whom he likes for high office, without the appointee being submitted to the democratic process. One of the most controversial Secretaries of State, John Foster Dulles, served by appointment, and on the occasion that he stood for elected office, was defeated. Dubya Bush appointed Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz – two of the so called “hawks” – personally, and they had considerable – maybe too much - authority. Barack Obama appoints his own people: Hillary Clinton may have held elected office, but the Secretary of State does not have to be from either House, even nowadays.

So yes, there are those who serve on either side of the Atlantic, without being chosen by any electorate other than the President or Prime Minister, together with their advisors. The onus is on those in the UK who would urge otherwise to make their case.

And that means doing more than complaining.

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