The Painful Struggle for Transparency in British Politics

Dominic Cummings’ breath-taking appearance at the joint session of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Technology Committee in the last week of May was one of the most revealing insights into the inner workings of Westminster on record. The combination of blunt personal remarks and detailed descriptions of the Government’s strategy posed a stark contrast to the historical veil of secrecy that has guarded British governance for over a half a century. 

The culture of secrecy was heavily embedded in Britain for the duration of the second half of the 20th century, stemming from the infamous Official Secrets Acts, and favoured a system of non-disclosure. There was no right to information from public bodies, and without action from Parliament the disclosure of information was left to the will of the executive – clearly an unhappy system. 

The notion that open government is better government is well regarded and is a mantra that should be followed by governments worldwide. Not only to avoid serious abuses of power or violations of human rights, but also to ensure that proper daily governance is in operation with a key contemporary example being the scandal over the procurement of PPE for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Cummings (Credit: Reuters, via BBC)

Cummings himself has acknowledged the importance of transparency in government numerous times, often stating it in his committee appearance, aligning himself with the general trend since the turn of the century. Following the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act under the Blair administration, the public now have a right to information and can make requests for disclosures. 

This drastic change in the British attitude towards transparency was crucial in kickstarting a trend favouring openness, with the aim that more would be done to advance transparency in the future. However, what has followed can be seen as a pushback against the change started under New Labour, most recently the proposed plans to reform judicial review, which is a key tool for government accountability in the UK.

Whilst Cummings’ appearance can be seen as a signifier that the attitude in Westminster is still tilting towards openness and not secrecy, it is important not to overstate its significance. Cummings’ testimony could still appropriately be dismissed as the fulfilment of personal vendettas. However, it may lead to the development of an expectation by Parliament to have these types of hearings, upon which significant media attention is granted and provides the political incentive for their occurence.

Any further development of transparency will require significant support and demand from the electorate, which due to other current crises seems unlikely to arise any time soon, notably due to the upheavals of Brexit and coronavirus. However, scandals which showcase the importance of transparency are always in good supply and will help to maintain at least the current status quo in terms of openness. All that is needed is a good opportunity and some excess political power to encourage further serious reform of transparency.

Cummings’ appearance, the biggest since Rupert Murdoch’s during the phone hacking scandal, has reminded the public and press of the power of Select Committees. This has emboldened the theme of transparency in British politics whilst this level of access would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. The Select Committee appearance serves as a strong reminder of what the British public now expects in regard to governmental transparency, even if a similar appearance is unlikely to occur in the near future.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

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