In the context of allegations of wrongdoing currently threatening Boris Johnson’s premiership, Rebecca Dobson Phillips looks at The Constitution Unit’s newly released survey data on What Kind of Democracy Do People Want? and reflects on some of the insights it provides for how public standards in Britain could be better managed.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not unaccustomed to being called out for his apparently tenuous relationship with the truth and dangerous proximity to scandal. Now he and his acolytes are busy fending off allegations that Number 10 failed to abide by its own COVID regulations, potentially in violation of the law. This case is currently at the centre of an internal inquiry and an investigation by the Metropolitan Police. Johnson is also facing threats of a vote of no confidence from his own backbenchers; persistent calls to resign for allegedly misleading parliament about the COVID rule-breaking; and an impressive tumble in his popularity, with recent polling suggesting that 72% of the UK public holds an unfavourable opinion of him.
Whether this latest outrage ends Johnson’s premiership only time will tell, but the story so far serves to illustrate a puzzle encountered in democratic politics all too often, which is how and why leaders with unenviable reputations can (and often do) survive politically. As political scientist Michael Johnston puts it in “How do I vote the scoundrels out?”, misbehaving politicians are rarely punished at the ballot box. And alternative routes to control and sanction are also frequently dismissed because procedures with powers to interfere in the functioning of elected government are often perceived to be anti-democratic. In the UK this means we are left with a system that is largely reliant on self-regulation; with a particular quirk of the system relying on the Prime Minister to adjudicate on violations of the Ministerial Code, including ultimately for himself.
The idea that the public don’t really care about how government functions, as long as it delivers effective policy, is pervasive. One of the ringing mantras of the Conservative Party—and Johnson himself—in recent years has been that whatever the means (and the means have been highly controversial at times) the important thing is that they “get the job done”; and in the 2019 general election that message did appear to cut through. But this assumption leaves us with a problem as to how to balance democratic right with public standards and provides limited scope for regulating the integrity of the most powerful.
A new report from The Constitution Unit at UCL, however, provides some intriguing insights into what the public think about public standards and the ways in which they can and should be controlled. Some of which flies in the face of widely accepted ideas about what the public expect of their politicians, what they’re willing to tolerate, and where the buck should stop when wrongdoing is discovered.
In a snapshot of public opinion from July 2021, the survey of 6,500 people found that principles, such as “acting honestly, acting within the law, and acting transparently” were valued much more than delivering policy (a direct contradiction of the idea that delivery always trumps integrity). This insight coupled with low levels of trust in a whole range of democratic institutions suggests that, while the impact of wrongdoing might not fall squarely on the individuals involved or be expressed effectively in elections, the casualty of weak integrity could well be democracy itself.
In terms of how Ministerial misdemeanours should be dealt with (currently by the Ministerial Code and the PM) the survey findings also challenge much mainstream thinking on the balance of political and bureaucratic accountability. In a question about “failures” of government ministers, which include having “arranged for a government contract to be given to one their friends” and having “lied to parliament”, there was significantly greater support for an independent person such as a judge (instead of the PM) to decide on whether the Minister should resign. In the case of lying to parliament 33% supported an independent process of regulation over one controlled by the PM (14%). This suggests that there is public support for (and therefore greater scope for) independent scrutiny of government actions; although working out how to make an independent process truly independent would remain a practical challenge.
There are plenty more insights that can be gleaned from this fascinating research, but one of the overarching messages that emerges is the contingency with which the public hands over political power in an election; and the appetite that exists for checks and balances on decision-making along the way. The results suggest that 77% think they have too little influence on how the UK is governed; depending on the issue, there is support for using non-political experts and referendums as ways of making policy decisions; and Citizens’ Assemblies are relatively popular despite their novelty in the UK’s political landscape, with 54% supporting their use for difficult decision-making and only 15% opposed.
For students of corruption and anti-corruption, this survey should provoke some creative thinking. A functioning democracy and public standards go hand in glove. A broad perspective on anti-corruption should more readily embrace democratic innovations as solutions to standards problems. Indeed, the dispersal of power across a wider base and the greater participation of the public in decision-making are necessary complements to the more formal systems of control and sanction that are usually proposed when low levels of public standards are in the frame.