Bruce Anderson: Parliament's rights are under threat – and so are ministers'

Under this Government, the populist titbits are always leaked
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The Independent Online

As we learned about the harassment of Damian Green and his family, a lot of us wondered whether we were still living in Great Britain, or whether our country, which was once synonymous with its people's freedom, had ceased to exist. It is absurd to compare Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith to Stalin and Mugabe, but righteous anger knows no verbal niceties. After Mumbai, it might seem wrong to refer to terrorism except literally. Even so, the assault on the Greens was a terrorist attack on civil liberties.

Yet good may come of it. If this official insolence awakens us to the twin threats, to civil liberties and to Parliament, the Greens will not have suffered in vain. In recent years, despite the growing evidence of increasing danger, many of us have been slothful and complacent. Not any more. It may have seemed as if the British lion had joined the lion of St Mark in a neglected museum of extinct grandeur. Not any longer. Our lion is reawakened and it is ready to roar.

Its claws have plenty of targets. In recent years, it has been impossible to open a newspaper without reading about some new attempt by Her Majesty's formerly obedient servants to undermine some traditional custom or freedom. Carol services are under threat. Musketeers had been firing their weapons for more than 400 years without any threat to the Queen's peace. Some jobsworth decides that a child might be frightened. Banned. Local government employees tell a joke which Jonathan Ross's scriptwriters would reject as absurdly tame. Sacked.

At a time when the public finances are desperately overstretched, it appears that thousands of civil servants are employed to search out customs, pleasures and decencies which the British have peaceably enjoyed for centuries and prohibit them. Up to now, this has all happened gradually, imperceptibly. Hunting might have provoked a revolt – but the hunters had a better idea. They just carried on regardless. Parliament is not going to carry on regardless. It helps that Damian Green is popular and respected; there is outrage on all sides.

While civil liberties have been eroded, so has the position of the Commons. Minor misdemeanours by individual MPs have been used as an excuse for a frontal assault on the status and prestige of our legislators. Thus far, MPs have been too terrified by their constituents' Poujadist resentments to put up a fight. Moreover, parliamentary privilege is not the language of the 21st century. As a result, in surrender after surrender, MPs have allowed themselves to be regulated by outside bodies. They too should re-learn how to roar.

They should remind the rest of us that our Parliament has its privileges so that we can enjoy our great privilege, the greatest which constitutional history has to offer: freedom under the rule of law. Parliamentary freedoms which were dearly bought by gallant blood must not be paltered away to bureaucrats. If we do not approve of our MPs' conduct, we can sack them. In the meantime, let them stand by their privileges which are the endowment of history.

There needs to be an enquiry into the arrest of Mr Green. Although it should be conducted dispassionately, with no taint of vindictiveness, it should result in indelible scorch marks on official grass. Those responsible should be identified; their careers should be broken. It would be helpful if the Green affair passed into legend so that in a generation's time, the mere mention of it would be enough to alarm any headstrong official contemplating even a pallid imitation. "There was so-and-so in Scotland Yard. He was going to be the next Commissioner but three. He ended his career running the traffic branch in Neasden. There was such-and-such in the Home Office. He had a Permanent Secretary's baton in his knapsack – until Green. Never seen in the Reform Club again."

But the enquiry must also investigate the politicians, including the Speaker. If the Commons is a lion, the Speaker is the lion 's teeth. Those who know Speaker Martin assure one that he is a likeable man. But likeability is not enough. He comes across as surly, gruff, curmudgeonly – and frequently partisan. He is not articulate enough to discharge his duties. If it turned out that he had failed to protect Parliament, the enquiry should be ready to invite him to consider his position.

The enquiry into recent events is urgent. Less so, but almost as important, is a judicious consideration of leaking. This Government has no right to complain about leaks. When Labour was in Opposition, its front-benchers did everything possible to encourage and benefit from leaking: Gordon Brown above all. In office, the leaking has continued. Until 1997, there was a rigid adherence to "budget purdah". In the weeks preceding a Budget, officials, advisers and ministers would be wary even of casual social contacts with journalists. Now, advanced Budget briefings are routine. This does not just apply to Treasury matters. If it is in their political interests to do so, all the other departments leak as a matter of routine. When was the last time that good news was first announced in Parliament?

The very honours list is no longer sacrosanct. Under this Government, the populist titbits are always leaked; the same will no doubt occur this month. When it comes to leaking, there is no limit to the current lot's cynicism. Yet it would be too easy to conclude that they are merely getting what they deserve. The Tories ought to remember that they hope to be in power sooner rather than later.

There is a correlation between excessive leaking and bad government. Ministers need to re-learn how to behave; if not this lot, then their successors. The Speaker must use his powers to protect Parliament and insist that announcements are made in the chamber, not leaked to the media. But ministers also have rights. They need to be able to trust staff in their private offices.

The relationship between a minister and his private secretaries can only work if the boss can have absolute confidence in the secretariat. Admittedly, this Government has done a lot to undermine the principle of civil service neutrality, which used to be one of the crown jewels of our system of government. It is easy to understand why some civil servants feel that ministerial misdeeds absolve them from their responsibilities, but that temptation must be resisted. If ministers are failing to do their duty, it is more important than ever that civil servants should do theirs, and even in this government, there are decent ministers who do not disgrace their office. Any civil servant who leaks for party political reasons is unworthy of his office. If that sort of behaviour became widespread, we would be worse governed than we are now, if that is possible.

In one sense, it is appropriate that Damian Green should have been mistreated, because he is a quintessentially English figure. His misfortunes should make us understand how much England, and Britain, are now in jeopardy. It is time to roar.

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