The blacking-out redaction of MPs’ expenses on the website, plus the uncertainties remaining over how opaque the Iraq Inquiry will be, are central issues this week in Parliament. They will also be test cases for the new Speaker (and I shall be voting for the person I judge most likely to bring about radical Parliamentary reform). But like all examples where concealment is used to hide embarrassment, they are also very revealing about how the Establishment works to preserve its own power and to divert attention away from its misdemeanours. In the case of the redacted MPs’ expenses, it has been suggested that the blacking-out followed advice from MI5 (unlikely, unless this was merely a cover to conceal intervention by senior politicians with an interest) or a belief that publication breached the Data Protection Act (hardly a plausible explanation) or manipulation by the Members’ Estimates Committee responsible for expenses matters (possibly, in view of their previous strenuous efforts to prevent full publication). The really important point, though, is that if the Daily Telegraph hadn’t bought the leaked data first and exposed it all, the official redacted version on the Parliamentary website would have concealed by far the most serious offence revealed, namely the ‘flipping’ of home designations to maximize financial gains and/or to avoid capital gains tax. It is likely therefore that some of those who stood to be convicted by the magnitude of these revelations had a hand in their suppression.
Equally, the report that Gordon Brown decided on a private inquiry into the Iraq War because of pressure from Blair has a ring of truth about it and illustrates again how untransparent decision-making is in Britain today and how secret private pressure from the elite can still readily derail the public interest. It is said that Blair feared he would be subjected to a ‘show trial’ if held in public; far more likely he feared the intense embarrassment, perhaps even humiliation, of having his testimony minutely and relentlessly dissected in forensic cross-examination by counsel, which could leave his reputation irreparably tarnished by revelations of manipulation and duplicity. There are two lessons here: not only should hiis evidence be given in public and under oath, but this should never have been an issue in the first place – the membership, terms of reference and format of the committee should have been subject to approval by vote in Parliament (or at least the appropriate Select Committee), not imposed unilaterally by the PM.
Nor are these isolated episodes. Despite the call on all sides for openness and transparency, it is still business as usual. The power and machinations of the Whips, as the outreach of No.10, remain undiminished. The operation of the Freedom of Information provisions is still subject to the ultimate override by the Secretary of State, as Straw demonstrated when he blocked access to the crucial Cabinet discussions in mid 2002 on the developing Iraq pre-war situation. The rubric of ‘national security’ is still used when all else fails to protect the Government from deep embarrassment. Appointments and patronage are still exercised in secret without consultation, and usually on the basis, not of merit, but of who will be ‘safe’ in keeping to the Government line and not causing trouble. Britain is still very much a closed society of secretiveness which still awaits the touchstone that will tear it asunder.