Britain is not a well governed country

By: Stein Ringen

The British constitution was, as recently as in the 1960s, ‘almost universally regarded as well-nigh perfect.’ Since then, however, it has been ‘substantially transformed’ from ‘order’ to ‘mess.’ So according to the late Anthony King, in his The British Constitution, published in 2007.

The COVID epidemic has exposed the constitution to its ultimate stress test. It has failed that test – but in a very particular way. Once the health emergency was acknowledged, in March last year, the government responded with brazen activism and a range of health care, behavioural and economic support policies. That response was far-reaching and forceful. But the peculiarity in the British case is that in spite of aggressive policy interventions, the country has suffered a heavier toll in both infections and deaths than almost any other country, and paid a disproportionally heavy price in economic recession to boot. That is explained not by an absence of policy, but by policies failing to follow through to protective outcomes.

The dysfunction starts in Whitehall culture. That is a culture of, firstly, concentrated political management. Britain is more centralised in governance than any other major European country. Everything depends on London, and when things get tough, as now, London has no adequate apparatus out there in the rest of the country to work with and through. There is devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to different degrees and in such ways as to be conflictual rather that co-operative. There are mayors in some regions, but with different and unsettled authorities. At the local level, councils have been reduced to administrative agencies under Whitehall with limited responsibilities. Professor King again: ‘Local government is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a part of the British constitution.’

Excessive centralisation proved costly in COVID management. There was an absence of local capacity and no established division of labour between central and local authorities, resulting in confusion in matters such as testing, tracing and quarantining. That confusion goes some considerable way to explaining why the epidemic has been held under less control than should have been expected.

A second feature of Whitehall culture is an ingrained tendency to secrecy. We know best, others are informed on a need-to-know basis, if at all. The stamp of CONFIDENTIAL is used liberally in government plans and documentation.

This, too, proved costly. In 2016, a simulation exercise, codenamed Cygnus, had been conducted on preparedness for a possible pandemic. There was, hence, awareness of the danger long ahead of the epidemic actually happening. The exercise had revealed the kinds of shortcomings that would materialise in the response to COVID, such as inadequacy in the supply of necessary equipment and meagre testing and laboratory facilities. But the findings had been classified and not made public knowledge, and had not been followed up on.

If Russian fighter planes approach British air space, warning bells ring in the defence high command and plans are put into operation. There was awareness of the pandemic danger, but when COVID approached British shores, there was no early warning system in place and no clear plan of action to be mobilised. Not even in the elementary matter of border controls had plans been made. The government found itself having to improvise and run after the unfolding disaster and catching up as best as was possible. By May-June, the consensus among epidemiologists was that if the first lockdown had been imposed a week earlier than happened, the number of COVID deaths three months later would have been only half of the actual incidence.

The dysfunction continues in Westminster. Parliament has next to no role in the formulation of public policy, except to put its stamp on what is in reality decided by the government. How can it be that the House of Commons took no action to follow up on the Cygnus exercise? The answer is that the House was not asked to do so by the government and has no capacity to take action on its own. For decades it has been common knowledge that the social care sector has been underfunded and ignored, but the lawmakers have been unable to act on their knowledge. Come the epidemic, these institutions, long neglected of government organisation and investment, found themselves overlooked and at the end of the line in the availability of testing of carers and residents, in the distribution of protective equipment for care workers, and otherwise. From March to mid-June, according to the Office of National Statistics, there were about 66,000 deaths among care home residents in England and Wales, compared to just under 37,000 in the same period the year before.

The imbalance between government and Parliament is part of an inadequate system of decision-making. Too much depends on Whitehall and Downing Street. There is too little pre-decision scrutiny of policies by other agents, including by Parliament. For example, a later review of COVID policies will want to ask in some detail what the decision-making process was behind ‘eat out and help out.’ Was there a careful consideration of consequences or was it an impulse decision by the Chancellor?

Once the first wave of infections was abating by early summer, there was time for careful deliberation over policies forward. But Parliament was not involved and the government kept decision-making to itself, without scrutiny. Ministers gave in to the temptation of believing that much of the danger was over and lifted behavioural restrictions. When the epidemic struck back, they were hesitant and late in reintroducing behavioural controls. The government was consistently behind the curve of medical and scientific advice. By late autumn, the epidemic was spreading out of control. This is a case study of flawed decisions resulting from a flawed system of decision-making.

It is not frivolous to suggest that the second COVID wave should not have happened, or at least been much contained. Countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand have held the contagion under control and incurred less economic damage than Britain. In Europe, countries like Finland and Norway have reasonably controlled the contagion with less draconian lock-downs than in Britain. In Germany, the maximum case numbers in the second wave were less than a third of the numbers in Britain, and the number of deaths less than a half (relative to population size). In Canada, the number of COVID deaths peaked at about 200 a day, in the UK at about 1200 (in both cases in January).

The British response has not been without effect. If control and prevention failed, treatment has been a success, thanks to the National Health Service, the jewel in the crown of the British state. But the NHS should never have been put under the strain it has suffered. Economic support policies have saved jobs and businesses. But it will be a question for a future review whether this was done at value for money. When the vaccine became available it was rolled out efficiently and at speed. That was thanks to careful early planning, in evidence of the power of public administration once there is plan and capacity, precisely that which was initially missing.  

In control and prevention, however, the British case is probably the least successful of any comparable country. That dismal outcome is not an accident but the accumulated effect of many shortcomings in a dysfunctional system of public policy and administration.

Constitutional experts have not needed a pandemic to know that the British constitution is not up to the job of giving a complex economy and society adequate governance. Nor have our politicians, such as MPs, who are as aware as any academic observer of flaws in the system they are participants in. But part of the dysfunction is an unfortunate inability in Britain’s political establishment to reform and modernise the way a changing country is governed. Anthony King was only half right. The constitution is no longer fit for purpose, but the reason is that it has not been transformed enough.

Perhaps now we can shake ourselves free from reform paralysis. In this ultimate test, Britain has under-performed catastrophically relative to comparable countries. Thousands and thousands of Britons are dead who should have been alive. That is all a result of systems failure. We should now be able to agree that it is time to take stock.

 If so, there is much to do:

  • Reform in Parliament’s working order. Many observers are upset about the anachronism of the House of Lords, but it is in the House of Commons that reform is urgent. The House should take control of its own agenda and institute rigorous procedures of pre-decision scrutiny.
  • Reform in Whitehall, in its organisation and its recruitment, and in the culture of self-contentment and secrecy.
  • Reform in the regions. There should be devolution in England as there has been to the nations. That can be done easily to the old English lands: Northumbria, York, Anglia, Mercia, London, Wessex, Cornwall.
  • Restoration of local government. Britain is the only country in Europe where it is thought that good government is possible without local government.   

Stein Ringen is a Visiting Professor of Political Economy at King’s College London. His book How Democracies Live will be published by Chicago University Press.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.