Why do we let our leaders get away with their decisions for three decades?

Waiting 30 years to release information means that it is too late to hold people to account.

I don't often agree with Paul Dacre, but he's always been right about wanting to halve the 30-year rule. How is it that we should let our leaders get clean away with the consequences of their decisions for three decades?

Today, for example, we have learned that Margaret Thatcher kitted out Number 10 on expenses (but paid for an ironing board), Geoffrey Howe wanted to abandon Liverpool to decline and the secret service pressed the BBC to censor Panorama.

Why should we have waited until now to discover all this, now that those responsible are too old to answer for their actions -- too frail in the case of Howe and Thatcher -- and safely out of power? After all, we've paid for it. We voted for it -- or at least we thought we did. So why shouldn't we know about it? People in their 60s and 70s have the right to know what the governments they supported did with their votes, without having to go to the grave wondering. But of course, this situation suits those in power very nicely indeed.

There is understandably little pressure from within government to open up the freedom of information to extend to anything beyond what local councils spend on school dinners. While bean-counters' decisions can be torn to shreds on the one hand, the big decisions remain safely locked away for 30 years, until it's all been forgotten and history has already been written. Which politician is going to vote for more transparency, more openness, more scrutiny on them during their own lifetimes?

Perhaps, in 2030 or thereabouts, we'll discover the discussions the New Labour cabinet had about the Freedom of Information Act. Maybe we'll all have a jolly old laugh about how it was decided that there was no way of opening up central government's decision making, and how the rights of the voting public were so haughtily dismissed as usual.

The thing is, I'll be 52 by the time I find out what the first government I voted for (in 1997) really got up to behind closed doors. Tony Blair will be 74, if he's still with us (and I hope he is), and even older by the time the really contentious stuff about the Iraq War comes out. It will be too late to hold these people to account for the decisions they made and the things they did.

In the meantime, they have been able to tell their side of the story. They've been able to write history from their point of view, omitting the unpleasant details that might come out and surprise us; they've been able to make money out of presenting their version of events as what really happened. And we can't do anything about it.

The dusty old faces recite the same tired arguments at times like this. Government needs to be secret, in order to preserve the decision-making process. Ministers must know that everything's locked away until they're about to die, in order to sleep soundly in their beds for the intervening time.

And I'm not saying we should broadcast cabinet meetings live -- just that there isn't so long to wait until we find out what really happened. It would serve our democracy better, and let our leaders know that they won't be able to escape scrutiny for the decisions they made and the things they really said. But then, which prime minister would open him or herself up to that? We may have to wait more than 30 years for a change to come.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.