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Trusting Government, Trusting Politicians, and the Cherie Blair Affair
Publication date: 2002-12-16

Trusting Government as an Institution in the 21st Century

This week (2002–12–14), the British Media were preoccupied with Cheriegate, or the “scandal” surrounding the involvement of an alleged “convicted conman” in the purchase of 2 flats in Bristol by the wife of the British Prime Minister, Cherie Blair. In the end it all came to the issue of trust. Or, as The Mirror put it:

“It [the Cherie Blair affair] may seem a trivial story at a time when we are about to go to war with Iraq. But it is not.
This country must have absolute trust in its Prime Minister and his Downing Street officials before such enormous decisions are taken.”

But is this a reasonable expectation? Can we trust government? Can we trust government officials? And is “government” and “government officials” the same thing?

We shall answer these questions below, but in the reverse order.

Is “Government” and “Government Officials” the Same Thing?

In the earlier days of human history, the role of government was played by “natural leaders”. A person within a tribe or nation would assume the leadership of a nation by a stroke of force, or by popular choice. The leader was the government, and the government was the leader. He could have some people who helped him in his task, but they just followed him. And the fate of such nation depended on the personality of such leader. He could literally make or break such leader‐dependant nation. He could even make both — first make it, then break it — as Hitler did it in Germany.

Once, however, government has matured, it became an impersonal institution. It no longer depends on the personalities who happen to constitute the government. Such mature government operates in accordance with established principles and procedures. It does not matter any longer, who is the head of such government, any more than it matters who happens to be the bus driver on an established and well‐managed bus network. On such network buses run on schedule along established routes, not in accordance with whims and fancies of each individual bus driver.

So, in such mature developed government it does not matter, if one head of state is replaced by another head of state. The government continues to function with the same precision and regularity as a well‐managed bus network. And while in a leader‐based stone‐age government death or madness of the national leader was a major historical event in the life of a leader‐governed nation, in a mature developed government replacement of one head of state by another is as insignificant as replacement of one bus driver with another. The government continues to operate in accordance with its principles, rules and procedures.

So while in a primitive leader‐based government the government and the government officials is the same thing, in an established developed government, government is an impersonal mechanical system based on impersonal and impartial principles, rules and procedures, and government officials are just replaceable employees performing dull, boring, but necessary administrative tasks within that system.

Can we Trust Government Officials?

The problem in Britain is, however, that while the British government system is established and mature, the present day British government officials are not sufficiently mature to understand their role and place within the system of government.

They still see themselves as “leaders”, usually as “great leaders”, on whose personal qualities and whims and fancies the fate of Britain depends. Thus, in the last months of the John Major government, a top conservative politician justified the need to cover up the “Arms for Iraq” scandal by lies, saying: “We had to do it, because the fate of the government was at stake”. He was obviously identifying the British Government as institution, with the personalities of the government ministers in the John Major government. But, of course, resignation of John Major, or of his ministers, did not mean the end of the British Government, it merely meant, replacement of one set of government employees with another set. The Fate of the Government was not at stake, personal careers of politicians were. But personal careers of politicians are of personal concern to the politicians themselves and have no public significance.

Not only politicians do not understand their role in the machinery of government, but the same lack of understanding prevails in the media. They too still think in terms of “great leaders”, rather than government officials. And hence the expectation of “impeccable honesty” and “trustworthiness”.

But “impeccable honesty ” and “trustworthiness” are “old‐fashioned” Victorian values, like “chastity” or “sobriety”. In those days drunkenness was a disgrace, people used to be hanged for stealing a sheep, adultery was a big scandal, and sodomy was an unthinkable crime. Today politicians parade their ability to “down 14 pints in one night” or “being gay” as reasons for being elected. And when a government minister in the John Major government was asked by a journalist, whether normal standards of honesty apply at the government level, the minister emphatically and almost indignantly exclaimed: “Of course, not! [what a naive question]”. And a New Labour minister, when asked by a journalist, whether her government lied, answered with a question: “Do journalists always tell the truth?”

To expect “impeccable honesty” from today's politicians is hoping that pigs might fly.

But, if we cannot trust politicians as individuals, then how can we trust government?

Can We Trust Government?

Because it is unrealistic to expect impeccable honesty from today's government officials and because we need governments that we can trust, the trustworthiness of government needs to be achieved not by ensuring that all government officials are impeccably honest individuals, but by ensuring that no matter how inwardly dishonest they might be, they will perform their administrative duties with at least the same level of honesty that we expect from a girl at a supermarket checkout. How can we achieve that?

We can learn from the supermarkets.

The supermarket checkout system is not based on expectation of impeccable honesty from the girls. The integrity of the supermarket checkout system is based on a strict and efficient system of audit and supervision. The electronic tills keep record of every transaction, and money in the tills is counted a few times in the course of a till operator's shift. Any discrepancy between the records and the money is bound to be discovered within the course of the working day. The operators know this, and their chances of stealing from the till are practically nil. And, if some operator does try his luck, he will be caught within the same working day. A similar system is needed at every level of government — strict audit and control. Then we shall be able to trust not government officials as individuals, but the system of government as an institution. And it is the system of government, not the personalities of government officials that matters.

Without a strict system of audit and control today's government cannot be trusted.

Back to the Cheriegate Issues

Cheriegate started with an assertion in the media that Cherie Blair used services of a “convicted conman” to buy 2 flats in Bristol. There were no allegations of any dishonesty either on the part of the alleged “conman”, nor of Cherie, but merely that the alleged “conman” was convicted of dishonesty in the past.

In itself there is nothing wrong with anybody dealing with a person who had committed some crimes in the past, and Cherie could have dismissed the whole issue from the start by saying, that they are talking about a private transaction, if they have reasons to believe that there were some criminal issues, they should inform the police, if not then she is not obliged to discuss her private dealings with anybody.

At a later stage, however, an allegation was made that Cherie had tried to influence a government department decision in the deportation proceedings against the alleged “conman”. If she did, and the decision had been influenced in some way by her intervention, then, indeed, there is a big public issue.

But had there been adequate audit and control over the activities of government, then it would have been possible to get instant and complete information on all the steps taken by the government department in the deportation proceedings of the alleged “convicted conman” with full reasons for each decision for every step. But, because there is no such audit, to establish what exactly happened in these deportation proceedings would require a lengthy and costly enquiry with uncertain results. And this is why we cannot trust government. Neither we (the public), nor the government officials themselves know what they should be doing, why they are doing it, and how they should be doing it. And for that reason there is no way to know whether their actions are right or wrong. And this is why it is such a mess.

And the only way out of this mess is learning to see government as a set of clearly defined duties, rather than of loosely defined privileges. This will mean defining the purpose of each government office from Prime Minister to the lowest employee of each department and ensuring that each operation within the system of government is recorded and can be traced and accounted for.

While some ego‐trip politicians might see this as a curb on their “powers”, such measures will in fact make their life easier, because undefined “powers” lead to undefined expectations — politicians seek to please everybody and to take credit for everything, but in the end create a mess and finish by being blamed for everything.

And, of course, there is no office of a “Prime Minister's Wife”.

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