Tuesday 7 April 2009

Closed cabinets

One aspect of cabinet government which people often seem not to understand is how little discussion and disagreement actually happens in meetings of the cabinet. The reason, of course, is that most of the real discussion and disagreement happens before anything actually gets to cabinet, by which time it is, to all intents and purposes, a "done deal". So, openly publishing minutes of cabinet meetings doesn't necessarily actually tell us very much.

Given that the normal situation in the UK has been for cabinets to be composed of members of a single party, such a system has a number of advantages – not the least being that the governing party has its disagreements in private rather than in public. I find myself wondering, however, whether the same system really suits a coalition model of government.

Certainly, it enables the government to appear united on all policy decisions, but it also means that negotiations – often tough negotiations – between parties with different values and policies are happening in secret, in a way which is not visible to members of either party outside the inner group within the government. It also means that the little "quid pro quo's" which happen on a daily basis are invisible to most, and that party members - and the public at large – see only those occasions when one party has had to yield substantial ground.

I can hardly deny that Plaid has had a few difficulties recently about one major concession made by our ministers – I was trying to explain the situation once again yesterday on Radio Cymru. It's a concession about which many members are unhappy. Nor can we ignore the fact that when a coalition is made between two parties of unequal size, the smaller is likely to end up making more, and probably bigger, concessions than the other.

I do feel somehow, though, that we're not seeing the whole picture, and that adherence to a traditional and secretive form of cabinet government is part of the problem.

1 comment:

James Dowden said...

It's not so much the concession that was the problem. It was the presentation of the concession. It would have been very easy to make cases such as:
1) Neutralize the concession: the lesser of two evils argument. The current funding position of Welsh Universities is unsustainable. Doing nothing will only drag Lampeter under (and in the event of a merger, take Trinity with it), whilst leaving Wales's academically strongest university, Cardiff, under-funded against its international competitors. (This can be later localized to attack Lib Dems in seats with universities in them.)
2) Use it to make a case: blame assignation. Observe the Byzantine way in which the WAG gets its revenue and its susceptibility to fiddling by Whitehall. Attack Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling for stealing Welsh money to cover up their own incompetence and cowardice (and if feeling particularly mischievous, invite the Welsh Labour Party to join in this condemnation). Use all this as an argument for fuller powers.

Yes, such presentation bears little relation to done-deal cabinet meetings (either in terms of being influenced by them or in terms of influencing them). Of course this was a horrible concession, but there's no need to dwell on that aspect: it should have been turned into an opportunity.