The Mid-Atlantic Blog

February 06, 2006

Hearings For Appointments?

There has been plenty of coverage of the speech today launching the Ken Clarke Democracy Task Force. The deep ironies of KC trying to reestablish trust in British politics I'll leave to one side for now, other than to say that it's amazing how easily coffee that you've sprayed out of your mouth in a combination of disbelief, disgust and amazement can come off an LCD screen if you wipe it off quickly enough...

What I really want to discuss, though, is the idea of hearings for public appointments. A good idea on the surface, of course, with great precedent in the US. And it does identify a problem that there is at the moment: even with the reforms of some time ago the public appointment system, especially at high levels, remains too opaque.

However, there is one major hurdle. It requires a legislature where the party system is weaker than that which we currently have at Westminster. With the centralised structure that the current system imposes, and with the growing trend towards professional politicians with little or no outside experience, there are fewer and fewer mavericks prepared to take views on appointments on a neutral basis.

This is evident in the US where the recent Alito hearings were an excellent example of the effect this politicisation can have. Judiciary branch nominations are more important to the Democrats' agenda, of course, as they have been unable to get many of their key ideas agreed by the electorate. Since Bork they have approached these appointments on a strict party basis, and the system has been the loser because of it. When you make the appointee's wife cry you know that there is a problem. The rise of the internet, incidentally, has made it much harder for the gross mischaracterisations that we've seen in the past to take hold.

In the UK the issues would be different of course. The left would care about the NHS Chief Executive, while the right would care about the BBC. There would be point-scoring galore, and the attacks would no doubt become personal very quickly. This would, of course, be imposed by the Whips. Not the first time, to be sure, but within 10 years, they'd be using all their efforts to control the proceedings.

Without a cadre of backwoodsmen (and women) to change the attitude of the backbenches as a whole it seems unlikely that the temptation to cause trouble would be avoided. Once that problem was fixed, then the idea of vetting public appointments might well fly. And if the A-list is used in the correct way, to identify and elect high quality local candidates, with a range of business and political experience, and of a wide range of ages, then we could move towards a solution to the backbench problem more rapidly than we might expect.

But a bunch of 32 year old careerist former Special Advisers and former lobbyists scoring points off each other? No thanks.

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