Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Unaccountable Britain

By Bruce Newsome

The general election campaigns of 2015 offer practically no hope of increased official or criminal accountability. The 2000s were the most scandal-ridden decade in British politics.

Politicians sold their favors and claimed false expenses, politicians and their lackeys lied over war in Iraq, police and other officials sold private information, and lazy or misguided police and social workers ignored organized sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, criminal justice was undermined by judges who empathized with the criminal rather than the victim, essentially lawless immigration, scandalous health and social care without criminal accountability, and exploitation of welfare benefits without significant risk of investigation.

Yet few have been held to account, while the current general election campaigns promise no effective improvements in accountability.

Corrupt politicians

The political elite is better at levelling the supposed privileges of others than itself. In the last two decades, Britain has recognized a new elite of “spin doctors” (political marketers), “quangos” (quasi-nongovernmental organizations, with powers to regulate private sectors and public services, but with little accountability), “think tanks” (most of them founded or funded by political parties), journalists with partisan editorial agendas, and public servants.

Yet the Labour governments of the 2000s, and their successors in the current general election campaign, simplistically blamed “the establishment”, and characterized accountability as disruptive to official freedom of action.

Only seven politicians were sent to prison for claiming money for false Parliamentary expenses, such as duck houses and rents to family members, even though the practices seem to have been routine before The Daily Telegraph started its reporting in 2009.

Journalists continue to trap senior politicians accepting money to influence legislation or other politicians, without criminal accountability.

Invasion of Iraq

The Labour governments’ blatant lies ahead of its intervention in Iraq in 2003 have never faced any more accountability than fake “independent inquiries” by people appointed by those same governments, including people who advised those governments at the time.

In 2004, Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed five supporters of the invasion to investigate allegations of politically-manipulated intelligence, chaired by his former Cabinet Secretary, Robin Butler, who reported within months that unidentifiable junior intelligence officials were at fault.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown appointed one of Butler’s committee members - Sir John Chilcot – to a larger inquiry into the Iraq War. In January 2015, Chilcot postponed his report yet again, 13 years after the first of the events that it is supposed to be investigating, four years after he was supposed to conclude.

Amongst the outrage were reminders that Sir Lawrence Freedman – a professor of the vacuous and partisan field of “war studies” - has sat on Chilcot’s “independent” inquiry the whole time, despite serving as Blair’s foreign policy adviser from 1997 to 2007 - a fact that the inquiry omits from its documents.

Corrupted privacy

In the 2000s, journalists, police, and politicians cozied up to each other, while journalists and private investigators hacked phone and email accounts, and bought official and private information.

Only 21 officials have been found criminally accountable for colluding with journalists to invade privacy for profit since reports emerged in 2000. The news media remain self-regulated, and no party promises otherwise.

Failures to protect and serve

No police have been held accountable for downgrading or under-recording about one-fifth of crimes in pretense of reducing crime.

No social worker, police, or local councilor has yet been found criminally accountable for failing to help thousands of under-age girls suffering organized sexual abuse in Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby, Bristol, and Oxfordshire.

Soft justice

In the 2000s, Labour governments promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” but reduced the issues to a choice between social justice and unfair counter-productive punishments. The judiciary, including Tony Blair’s own wife, embraced fashionable sympathy for the perpetrator of crime as a social victim.

Few judges have spoken out against their colleagues for excusing crime on the grounds of poverty or some other social disadvantage, or for sentencing empty alternatives to material punishments. Nearly 80 per cent of Britons are unhappy with the justice system or think that punishments do not match crimes.

Meanwhile, health and social care have been beset with scandals without effective accountability, mainly because Labour governments divested the responsibilities to QUANGOs. Immigrants can essentially opt out of legal immigration by hiding in trucks that are almost never inspected. They can work or claim benefits in Britain with little chance of investigation.

Political responses

Unfortunately, the manifestos are surprisingly ignorant of such important issues. The 2015 general election campaigns have much to say about “equality” and “fairness” and “justice” in the context of welfare, health care, and education, and bringing bankers and energy suppliers to account, but practically nothing new about official or criminal accountability.

One brave woman has offered herself as a parliamentary candidate “on the single issue of accountability,” but her local campaign has no national visibility.

The Conservative Party manifesto promises to “overhaul the police complaints system” and “boost public confidence and trust in the police”, “protect victims,” and “toughen sentencing.” However, the manifesto does not adequately specify how these objectives would be achieved. The manifesto refers to “a responsibility to respect others” in the context of countering extremism. (The other mentions of responsibility refer to devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.) The manifesto refers to “accountability” only twice in 84 pages: it takes credit for more accountability on the “frontline” of healthcare, and admits that schools need more accountability, but would not change the existing authorities.

The entire Liberal Democrat manifesto lacks the word “justice.” It promises more “accountability” for bankers, schools, health districts, prison governors, local assemblies, the EU, and journalists, but promises no new authority to hold any of these targets accountable. Yet it is the most specific on “crime prevention” - by creating special courts for addicts, turning prisons into correctional institutions, enforcing the rules on immigration and residency, strengthening the National Crime Agency, enacting a Victims’ Bill of Rights, and bringing victims into the judicial process.

The Labour Party promises to extend much of the last Labour government’s discredited promises on tackling the causes of crime, liaising with communities, and “dealing with” anti-social behavior, drug addiction, and “youth justice” outside of the criminal justice system. It promises to reduce errors in healthcare and promises more inspections of schools, but offers no new authorities.

The Scottish Nationalists refer frequently to “a fairer society,” “a fair wage economy,” “better paid jobs,” “greater equality,” “fairer pensions,” “fairness in the welfare system,” “reducing child poverty,” “protecting human rights,” and other incontestable objectives, but simplistically ignore the caveats. For instance, how would SNP both “protect human rights” and reduce the foreign criminal’s use of human rights to avoid deportation? The SNP has nothing to say on this. The SNP, even more than the Labour Party, refers back to the simplistic socialist choices of the 1970s.

Both the Conservatives and UKIP promise to scrap the Human Rights Act and at least curb European human rights so that foreign criminals can be deported or prevented from immigration.

The future

The parties should be promising a truly independent judiciary that decides for itself who will conduct inquiries, without interference from the politicians, civil servants, or their advisers.

Britain needs more national law enforcement agencies independent of the disgraced Metropolitan Police.

Additionally, some party needs to challenge the simplistic libertarian consensus against national identity cards, which would be necessary for countering routine abuse of welfare entitlements, residency, and employment rights. (This was legislated by the Labour government in 2006, but delayed by civil libertarians before abolition in 2010.)

Finally, Britain needs new legislation to hold all officials and politicians criminally accountable for abusing their official positions, whatever their positions and duties, without the need for separate legislation or regulators for health carers, social workers, police, and border agents.