Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Let the people decide

The farcical Hutton report will not restore public faith in the democratic process. One thing that might is introducing the jury system for future government inquiries.

March 1, 2004
7 min read

The Iraqi war and the inquiries it has inspired have exposed once again a crucial catch-22 conundrum of British democracy: the overmighty executive is able to force through largely unaccountable actions and policies that may fairly be described as “policy disasters” and which should be examined independently, impartially and convincingly; but whenever there are inquiries into those actions and policies, they are established, and their terms of reference set, by the self-same executive.

Thus the prime minister chose both Lord Hutton and former cabinet secretary Lord Butler to head the two Iraqi inquiries, and determined who would sit on Butler’s committee to investigate the intelligence that informed the decision to go to war. He did so with advice from officials and advisers who are well aware of where the interests of the government and state lie, and of how much the identities of the people who undertake inquiries shape the nature of reports. It was also Blair who set the terms of reference of the two inquiries, fixing the limits of both investigations into his and his government’s conduct.

True, in the case of the Butler inquiry Blair was obliged to negotiate the terms of reference with the leaders of the two major opposition parties. But in practice he had only to satisfy a marginal demand from Tory leader Michael Howard that still leaves vital issues untouched. These issues include the extent and import of communications with Washington, and the nature of the decision-making process that committed Britain to war. Why did Howard not demand more? Partly because his party backed the war in the first place; but also because, party political differences aside, both major parties see their interests as being tied up with defending those of the state.

Judges are often the first choice to head inquiries. Officially, this is because they are constitutionally independent of the executive and are said to be professionally skilled in hearing and assessing evidence. They may very well take a wide view of their responsibilities. Lord Scarman, for example, returned a sensitive and reform-minded report on the Brixton riots in 1981, and Sir Richard Scott outraged the establishment with his dissection of the government’s unscrupulous conduct over arms sales to Iraq and Iran in 1996. But generally judges can be relied upon to uphold the interests of the state and current government. Someone blundered over Scott, a principled man who was offended by the arrogant mendacity of our elected rulers and the secrecy in which they cloaked their actions. For the most part, however, the judiciary offers an ample choice of men with safe hands. The acme of judicial deference was the Widgery inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in 1972. The soldiers who shot 13 people dead in Derry were represented by one Brian Hutton QC.

Outside the judiciary prime ministers are spoilt for choice for candidates who can be relied upon to uphold the interests of the state. Government departments, for example, keep a vast repository of names in reserve for high-level appointments to state quangos like the BBC Board of Governors, the communications regulator Ofcom, the Health and Safety Executive, the Royal Opera House, the Government Hospitality Advisory Committee for the Purchase of Wine& It is not done to describe these people as “the great and good”, but that remains the animating principle of selection.

Former officials usually offer “a safe pair of hands”, as Blair will know from the inquiry headed by Treasury solicitor Sir Anthony Hammond into the cash-for-passports Hinduja affair. The inquiry by the former UK ambassador to Washington Lord Franks into the blunders that preceded the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands has been widely mentioned as a model for Butler. It might be as well to recall Jim Callaghan’s lyrical description of Franks’s report. For 338 paragraphs, Franks painted a “splendid picture”, Callaghan said, but “when he got to paragraph 339 he got fed up with the whole canvas he was painting and chucked a bucket of whitewash over it”.

Butler’s conduct during the Scott inquiry suggests Blair has summoned a very safe pair of hands. Butler rowed with Scott on several occasions, especially over Scott’s refusal to accept his canons of secrecy. I have since heard Butler speak bitterly of his anger against a man who simply did not understand how government worked. Butler’s Cabinet Office deliberately delayed handing over papers that Scott had requested, and I am informed (single source only) that Scott was on the point of ordering in the police to gain access to documents. On one occasion, Scott rebuked Butler over the Cabinet Office’s failure to hand over the minute of a meeting between John Major and then trade minister Alan Clark to the prosecution of the Matrix Churchill directors caught up in the arms-to-Iraq affair. Scott said Butler had known for some time that what was said at the meeting was highly relevant to the wrongful prosecution of the engineering firm executives. In another exchange, Scott asked Butler to comment on the proposition that the “convenience of secrecy” protected government decision-making from being challenged. Butler replied frostily: “You can call that a matter of convenience if you like. I would call it a matter of being in the interests of good government.”

But it’s not always so easy to fool the public. The huge discrepancy between the response to Hutton at Westminster and public reaction was striking. In the Commons Blair claimed that he had been fully vindicated, and he triumphed over Howard. But opinion polls showed clearly that the public was unimpressed by Hutton’s conclusions. Are people going to be any more impressed by a second commission that sits in secret and fails to inquire into the issues that still animate public debate over the war?

Clearly not. I do not want to absolve the media from blame for their part in fostering an atmosphere of distrust of this government in particular and politics in general. The government has also badly damaged itself through its addiction to spin. But those who rail against the public for failing to turn out at election time, and who lament the effect of public distrust upon the fabric of democracy, ought to turn their attention to the quality of democracy on offer.

British government is damagingly secretive, and Blair’s Freedom of Information Act is designed to retain the “convenience of secrecy”. Parliament acts more as a buffer against the population on behalf of the executive than as the forum in which the government is held to account. As for state-appointed agencies and quangos, the government uses “merit”, code for membership of professional and managerial elites, to rebuff any advances of the hoi polloi.

Underlying the idea of merit is a refusal to accept what the common man or woman has to offer. Thus, for example, Lord Stevenson, the arch-crony who headed the commission to appoint “people’s peers”, defended his first elite batch on the grounds that he would not expect his hairdresser to sit in the second chamber. More fundamentally, the government has replied to a radical report on public appointments from the Public Administration Select Committee by stressing its commitment to the principle of merit and refusing to experiment further with choosing lay people by lot for service on quangos.

In the absence of strong Parliamentary scrutiny, here surely lies a sound alternative method for conducting public inquiries: with a judge or expert assessor sitting with a jury. The jury is one of the cornerstones of democratic supervision of justice in the UK. Instead of seeking to curtail juries, the government could make further use of them to strengthen and democratise public inquiries.

There is not so much respect for juries in more exalted quarters, however. I am in debt to Private Eye for revealing that Hutton, as the Ministry of Defence’s counsel at the Widgery inquiry, rebuked both the coroner – for observing that the army had effectively committed murder by shooting indiscriminately into the crowd on Bloody Sunday, and the jury – for returning an open verdict. “It is not for you or the jury to express such wide-ranging views,” he said, “particularly when a most eminent judge has spent 20 days hearing evidence and come to a very different conclusion.”Professor Stuart Weir is director of Democratic Audit, based at Essex University’s Human Rights Centre, and one of the authors of Democracy under Blair (Politico’s Publishing, 2002)

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency