Saturday, 27 February 2016

The new ‘Ten Year Rule’ and the defence ‘commentariat’

Professor Andrew M Dorman
King’s College London

As outlined in ‘The Curious Incident of Mr Cameron and the United Kingdom Defence Budget: A New Legacy?’ David Cameron has managed to undertake one of the most dramatic U-turns in the recent history of British defence and security policy. Six months before the publication of ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (NSS/SDSR) in November, the outlook for Britain’s armed forces looked poor. As a then non-protected budget the Ministry of Defence was contemplating a 20-40% reduction in its budget. Political support for defence was hard to find with David Cameron assiduously avoiding committing his party to the 2% of GDP target he had managed to get the NATO partners to sign up to at their summit in Wales the previous September. Moreover, within a month of the May 2015 election, the Chancellor, George Osborne, had raided the defence budget once again, taking a further £500m out of it.

Yet, a month later, the start of the U-turn was confirmed as Osborne surprised all the defence ‘commentariat’ by committing the government to the 2% target. As a result, when the NSS/SDSR was published in November Cameron was able to announce a series of defence commitments including 2 new strike brigades, 2 squadrons of F-35Bs for the aircraft carriers, 9 new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and an extra £2bn of funding for Britain’s special forces. The silence of the defence ‘commentariat’ was palpable with the likes of Lord Dannatt supporting the new investment and Lord West instead critiquing his own party’s opposition to Trident renewal. They all appeared oblivious to the obvious question that falls out of this is - how was Cameron able to ‘pull the rabbit out of the hat’? Was this all real or had they again been duped?

What stands out in the NSS/SDSR is the basic flaw in the review’s assumptions that none of the ‘commentariat’ appear to have noticed. The review highlighted the immediacy of the challenges now facing the United Kingdom from the likes of so-called Islamic State and Russia, but its solutions, such as two new strike brigades for the army and the two new aircraft carriers, will not be ready for another decade. Put simply the armed forces have been told to develop a Future Force posture for 2025, five years later than planned in the previous 2010 ‘Strategic Defence and Security Review’, whilst the review emphasises the immediacy of the challenges currently facing the United Kingdom and its allies. In other words, the government is quietly, but openly accepting a ‘window of vulnerability’ which they can only hope will not be tested.

This situation is remarkably similar to that in the early 1930s when the then government decided that the ‘Ten Year Rule’ – the assumption that the UK would not have be confronted with a major war for the decade ahead – was no longer valid as a planning assumption but then delayed in investing the rearmament process.

With some justification the 2010 NSS/SDSR effectively adopted a variation of the interwar ‘Ten Year Rule’ when it assumed that Britain’s armed forces should be reorganised for conflicts after 2020, whilst assuming that the government would not become engaged in any new conflicts in the intervening period. At the time the British involvement in Iraq had ended and that in Afghanistan was due to come to an end. There were no obvious major short term military threats to the United Kingdom, instead the principal dangers were the parlous condition of the economy and the government’s finances.

However, as the 2015 NSS/SDSR freely acknowledges, the situation has significantly changed for the worse five years on. Russia has illegally seized the Crimea and is actively supporting separatist groups in the east of Ukraine, a civil war has broken out in Syria where Islamic State has emerged and is now being confronted by a variety of nations each with their own particular goals in mind, Britain’s brief involvement in a conflict in Libya has left that nation divided and the US has attempted its pivot to Asia. These are just some of the challenges confronting the UK. Nevertheless, the 2015 NSS/SDSR has perpetuated the ‘Ten Year Rule’ giving 2025 as the new target date for Britain’s armed forces to be reconfigured to confront these challenges.

So why the silence amongst the ‘commentariat’? There are three potential answers. First, there was such a relief, both individually and collectively, in the findings of the NSS/SDSR that they simply did not want to rock the boat. In other words, it could have been a lot worse. Second, Cameron has managed to balance the various factional interests within the ‘commentariat’ with all feeling that they have generally won. Third, the ‘commentariat’ itself is actually quite poor in quality: put simply, they missed the flaw in the review. If this is the case then only time will tell whether the government and/or the ‘commentariat’ will be found out.

You can read the full article 'The Curious Incident of Mr Cameron and the United Kingdom Defence Budget: A New Legacy by Andrew Dorman, Matthew Uttley and Benedict Wilkinson here.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Commons Select Committee System in the 2015–2020 Parliament

Ian Marsh

The House of Commons select committees witnessed some of the most constructive political theatre of the 2010-2015 Parliament. Recall Rupert Murdoch’s public contrition, Margaret Hodge’s assault on MNC tax evasion, and Keith Vaz’s timely interrogations of G4S etc. All of these represented the public face of a newly empowered system. Less noticed longer term activity was no less significant – for example, Andrew Tyrie’s Banking Commission, the Energy Committee’s reports on the challenge of decarbonising the UK, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s focus on a written constitution or the Education Committee’s inquiries on the multiple causes of under-achievement in education.

Behind these developments lay significant changes in the standing of the committee system. Following the Wright Committee proposals, the Coalition government agreed to the election of Committee chairs by the whole House and the election of Members by their own parties. Committees responded variously to their new standing and authority.

These developments and possibilities for the future development of committee roles are assessed in four current, independent reports: a 2015 report for the Centre for Policy Studies by Treasury Committee Chair Andrew Tyrie; one for the Institute for Government by Dr Hannah White; a 2013 report for the Hansard Society on digital media; and finally a report on public engagement commissioned by the Liaison Committee from several academics.

These reports differ somewhat in their primary orientation - but in complementary ways. Thus Tyrie is concerned with the power and effectiveness of Parliament. In his analysis, committees are the best candidates to rebuild its broader stranding. Wider social developments reinforce expanding committee roles. A collapse of deference has affected the standing of Parliament and this requires a proactive response. But social change is also affecting Parliament’s own culture. ‘Deference to the party hierarchy, as to so many institutions, is in decline. Independence of mind is also more often rewarded by balanced or positive national media coverage than, as was all too often the case, ritually dismissed as the actions of a maverick or a “wrecker” ’.

For her part, White is concerned with impacts on policy making. She finds wide variance across committees which she traces to differences in basic practices. She notes the essentially contingent sources of committee influence, not least the quality of reports and the respect with which witnesses are treated. Her recommendations range widely across committee practice.

The Hansard Society report looks specifically at social media. As citizens mobilise in more fragmented and more specialised communities of interest, a fresh communications and linkage challenge arises: ‘Increasingly the media landscape needs to be seen not as a pyramidal ranking of outlets according to perceived influence, whose foundational base is television, radio and newspapers, but as a flat, networked sea in which are interspersed a series of ‘hubs’ which represent a particular brand or community around which a specific audience interest can be built.’ The report concludes: ‘Parliament has enormous online brand potential as an authoritative source of information and news, particularly if its role and work is pitched in the context of ‘democracy’ rather than ‘politics’…….Its unique selling point is its authoritative place at the apex of our democracy’.

Finally, the Flinders et al report explores why public engagement should be a priority and how it can be enhanced. Formal and informal outreach has developed in the 2010-15 Parliament. For example, social media was used to get committee publics to suggests topics for inquiry (Transport Committee); to generate questions for Ministers via Twitter ( Business; Transport; Education); it was also used to distribute video clips of informative evidence sessions (Education and Transport); and clips promoting reports (International Development on FGM; Energy on decarbonising the economy; Environment on endangered species). Secondary platforms like Mumsnet, Money Saving Expert and The Student Room were also used to reach new audiences. But much social media activity was either broadcasting out or one-off engagement. Flinders et al suggests alternatives.

All these reports embody high aspirations for the future development of the committee system. But because they frame imagination and ambition, conceptions of the wider systemic roles of committees are fundamental. Three of the reports more or less draw on familiar scrutiny and oversight activity. This orients imagination in the first instance to impacts on parliament and the executive. The case for seeing committees as contributors to agenda setting and to the public conversation around emerging issues is developed most comprehensively in the Flinders et al report.

In responding to these varied opportunities, select committees begin with some singular advantages.

• First, they focus on single issues which, in an era of pluralised citizen identities and more fluid partisan attachments, seems to align with the way increasing numbers of citizens relate to politics.
• Second, formal committee inquiries and other activities can cover the policy process through all its phases – from the moment an issue emerges and seeks a place on the public agenda through to its definition, assessment of its significance, an enumeration of possible remedies, and (much later) legislative, executive and administrative action.
• Third, although reports and other documentation need to be made much more accessible, these processes occur in transparent settings. Transparency is a critical asset.
• And finally, findings usually involve a search for common ground that can cross partisan lines – but without succumbing to anodyne fudges. This is particularly evident in inquiries on issues that are seeking a place on the political agenda; or that are longer term in nature; or that are not yet the subject of explicit partisan contention; or in inquiries on the detail of proposed legislative or administrative measures.

But whilst much has been accomplished much more remains possible. The 2015-2020 Parliament has the opportunity to initiate pioneering experiments or pilots that could have far wider and far reaching democratic implications.

You can read Ian Marsh’s article ‘The Commons Select Committee System in the
2015–20 Parliament’ in full here.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The March Towards Post-Democracy, Ten Years On

Colin Crouch

The motor industry is still being rocked by the revelation that Volkswagen installed software that falsified the results of diesel emissions tests. But this is not the only major example of technical data being manipulated or falsified in the interests of profit. In the Libor, Eurobor and Forex market scandals traders dishonestly altered interest rate data in order to make more profit for themselves. The great financial crisis of 2007-08 itself resulted from a mass of examples of massaging and distorting of statistical data.

Less openly dishonest but at least as devastating have been other cases where financial criteria are allowed to trump technical and professional criteria. BP’s pollution of the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion at its Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 was such a case. BP’s technical experts had warned about the risks of instability at the rig, but their technical knowledge was ignored in the face of financial experts’ concern for BP’s profits. The damage to the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear reactor at Fukushima following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 was another. Although the main disaster was a natural one, the official report on the case found that warnings of technical staff over the vulnerability of the plant had been ignored for financial reasons. Different in kind but from the same stable were the cases of phone-hacking by various British journalists over a number of years; reporters at News International and other media organizations allowed their journalist ethics to be subordinated to their bosses’ need for money-making stories.

What unites all these examples is the corrupting effect that financial knowledge has on other forms. The task of producing data, especially the statistics that measure performance, is increasingly dominated by that mother of all statistics, the maximization of profit, the achievement of targets, the bottom line. When it comes to a conflict between the dictates of financial data and those produced by other sciences, what should the technician who works for a profit-maximizing firm, or for a public service organization required to meet targets that are their analogue of profit, do? And how should we the public deal with the flood of data produced in such a context, that claims to tell us for each car its exhaust gases, for each bar of chocolate its nutritional value, and every university its ranking on some scale? On one level such statistics are very reassuring. They enable us to compare precisely, to calculate risks and in general to behave like rational modern people. We usually do not understand the science that lies behind these numbers, but that is not necessary. We need only to be able trust the experts who produce the data. But can we? And can we trust the advice of doctors, teachers and others who have been given strong incentives to place the achievement of targets over their professional judgement?

In a market economy firms that lose the trust of customers and investors should lose trade to competitors who behave honestly. That is their incentive to behave honestly despite the temptation to maximize profit by doing otherwise. However, they might calculate that the gains from a successful deception are so great that they outweigh the negative consequences of discovery – especially if the risk of discovery seems very small. This must be how the VW staff concerned argued, as did their opposite numbers in BP, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, and the large number of world-famous banks implicated in the financial scandals before them.

Ordinary mortals might gasp at such willingness to take such high risks. But that quality is exactly what marks out successful bankers, entrepreneurs and public service managers from the rest of us. Strong incentives indeed are needed to make them avoid the risks of acting dishonestly, but much in the present business environment skews those incentives the other way. We still don’t know whether the Volkswagen group is the only car manufacturer that has cheated over diesel exhaust emissions. Even if it is, it may, like the great banks, find that it is ‘too big to fail’, and that German taxpayers will have to bail it out. If other firms are involved, VW managers will probably breathe more easily if they take a look at what happened in the finance industry. So many major banks were involved in the recent scandals that none need fear that they will lose customers as a result. Where else can customers go? True, the banks have been fined enormous amounts in the US, British, Swiss and other courts; but if almost all participants in a market bear similar burdens, in the end the costs can be passed on to customers through higher bank charges, the closure of branches and other inconveniences. Certainly none of Barclays, HSBC, Deutsche Bank and others has gone under. They continue proudly to advertise their wares, and strut on the global markets. After the scandals Barclays appointed a new CEO, Antony Jenkins, a man with a high reputation for honesty, with the mandate to clean up all the bank’s activities. During the past summer he was sacked; the bank said that it now needed a ‘new set of skills’.

In such a situation, why not take risks with reputation in order to achieve higher profit? It was the public regulatory system of the USA that discovered the VW scandal. So long as great enterprises face such incentives to deceive, we shall continue to need such institutions, as well as systems that ensure the trustworthiness of regulators themselves. We need tests, inspections, and many statistics in which we can believe if we can have confidence that the dominance of the financial mother of all statistics can be successfully challenged. This is an expensive system; and not surprisingly business interests and their political representatives will continue to rail against the costs and bureaucracy of regulation. But these are the price we have to pay for the loss of trust produced by the supremacy of the profit motive in an economy of highly imperfect competition.

You can read the full article from issue 87 1 of the Political Quarterlhere.

Colin Crouch is an emeritus professor of the University of Warwick Business School. His book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life will be published next month by Polity Press.

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Future of Parties and Post-Democracy

Kate Dommett

Party politics has long been associated with narratives of decline. Falls in party membership, loyalty and participation seem to indicate that parties are in crisis. While supposed to perform the essential democratic functions of facilitating citizen participation in politics and governing society, parties are now frequently depicted as detached and archaic, no longer representative bodies but instead administrative organisations detached from the people.

However, recent developments such as the surge in Scottish National Party membership, the rush to become a supporter of the Labour Party and the creation of new parties such as the Women’s Equality Party suggest that parties may not be as doomed as the narrative of decline suggests. So are parties in decline, and if so why? And are there indications that parties could address their shortcomings to become more democratic organisations?

In considering these questions academics have tended to focus on the structural changes that have led to party decline. While once it was commonplace for people to spend their evenings at their local Labour, Conservative or Liberal Club, and to engage with parties through the workplace or community campaigns, now the idea of joining a political party and participating in lengthy evening meetings seems archaic. From this perspective, the challenge facing parties derives from a disconnect between the ‘traditional’ conception of party politics and the way citizens now live their lives, with more individualized, time-poor lifestyles negating the kind of interaction that led parties to have over a million members. This kind of explanation undoubtedly has resonance, but it does not explain why parties can exhibit upsurges in support of the kind recently evident in Britain.

‘Post-Democracy’, the topic of a recent special edition in Political Quarterly, provides some ingredients for an explanation. In his 2004 book, Colin Crouch argued that changes in society were diminishing opportunities for participation and hence eroding a vital component of democratic politics. Crouch specifically singled out changes in parties’ agenda-setting, organisation and communication as responsible for making parties less democratic. He argued, first, that while once parties channelled public desires into political programmes, they now rely increasingly on experts and pollsters. Second, the power and significance of party membership had been eroded in favour of party elites and political advisers. And, finally, the way parties communicate had changed, being no longer based on community led modes of interaction that encouraged participation, but rather top-down messages that ‘sold’ a party to the public.

These different explanations resonate in parties’ reforms to policy making processes and the use of consultants and advertising agencies. But the diagnosis also suggests the potential for parties to counter these trends. In my Political Quarterly article, I argued that there were signs of attempts to reform parties on these fronts through techniques such as the promotion of community organising. In practice, however, many of these developments represent little substantive change. So, to take one example, the new agendas presented by UKIP and Podemos in Spain do not necessarily indicate a more direct role for members in forming party positions: rather, they present more populist messages that resonate with the public but do little to advance participation in agenda setting.

Reform to party organisation can make a difference, however. Take, for example, the dramatic increase in the number of members and registered supporters within the Labour Party after the 2015 General Election. Reports have signalled that over 150,000 people joined the party and many more registered as supporters. Changes to the way the party elects its leader and a subsequent focus by Jeremy Corbyn on democratizing party decision-making signal a move away from the post-democratic tendencies diagnosed by Crouch. This helps to explain why party membership may have had more appeal.

In a similar fashion, the SNP experienced an increase in membership after a lengthy grassroots campaign for Scottish Independence. The increase in more localised campaigning and the shift from articulating a party message through elites or via canvassing at election time, to promoting a specific cause through local community campaigning and discussion in pubs and the workplace altered the way in which the party’s message was heard. Such changes in communication made party politics more accessible.

When attempting to understand the paradoxes of contemporary party politics, ‘post-democracy’ therefore provides a powerful tool through which to isolate and explore recent developments. It is important to note, however, that as Crouch himself argued, democracy is continually evolving. Hence while parties may improve their democratic standing, they can also fall back. Parties need to display an ongoing commitment to restoring and upholding their democratic credentials. This commitment may, however, be hindered by parties’ need to maximise influence and win electoral success. In predicting the future for political parties, narratives of decline are premature, but any attempt to revive parties’ fortunes will be far from easy.

You can read Kate Dommett's article in full here.