Leading article: Seeing through transparency

Share
Related Topics

There are some things no politician can be against: equality used to be the most fashionable aspiration, now it's transparency. Indeed, on the basis that no one could argue for its converse, opacity, we are all in favour of transparency now. There was once a time when the emperor's new clothes made him look ridiculous; today it's all the rage for those who govern to parade naked.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, has declared that he would have no problem releasing his own tax returns and would encourage other ministers to follow suit. He wants to be able to prove that he will not personally benefit from lowering the top rate of tax. And he probably does not care to be trumped by his cabinet colleague Vince Cable, who said the same. But there must be shyer Tory colleagues who would feel differently about exposing their means, though sometimes they do so inadvertently, as the Cabinet Secretary, Francis Maude, did in assuming that everyone has a garage. If modest means are attractive to voters, then Tories are bound to lose out.

The new imperative for openness was also bolstered by the spat between the main London mayoral candidates, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson boasted that his tax affairs are as straightforward as Mr Livingstone's are complex. As Ian Birrell writes today, the exposure of Mr Livingstone's tax arrangements could be fatal to his chances, not because they are illegal, but because they are at odds with his own rhetoric about tax and those who aspire to public office.

The Prime Minister has been obliged to pay homage himself to openness after the embarrassment occasioned by the former co-treasurer of the Tory party seeming to promise would-be donors that sufficiently large gifts to the party could buy not merely access but influence over policy. There is no evidence that trade-offs of this sort have taken place – at least, nothing on the scale of Tony Blair and Bernie Ecclestone – but the damage is done. The Prime Minister must now publish details of his social encounters with donors. If some of these people are his friends, and he is therefore obliged to put his social life on the public record, he has only himself to blame.

Under this prime minister, as happened under Mr Blair, social and political life have overlapped in a way that is not altogether wholesome, though in Mr Cameron's case it is not political donations that are the problem. The revelations about his Chipping Norton encounters with Rebekah Brooks (seemingly, she met Mr Blair in London) and other representatives of the Murdoch press suggest that the personal became very political indeed, even if nothing so concrete as cash changed hands. These encounters are properly in the public domain.

Is it altogether to the good, then, that we should be more and more open about more and more things? Not entirely. Tony Blair has said he regretted his introduction of the Freedom of Information Act because it did not turn out as he expected. Certainly, it has exposed a good deal about the workings of government and the misgovernance of public services, but we would be deluding ourselves if we imagined that government is now fully open to scrutiny. Rather, it is clear that when formal proceedings may be made public, many of the real decisions are taken in corridors or in private homes between the people who matter. If cabinet discussions are not given some protection from publication, it is likely that they will neither be as full nor as honest as they should be.

The trend for politicians to publish details of their personal financial affairs also has its drawbacks. It began in the US where Mitt Romney's wealth is a matter of record. But in the US, they see wealth as a mark of success rather than something slightly shady. And if wealth is to be measured by assets as well as income, not many politicians will be perceived as being one of the people. The greatest exercise in involuntary transparency – the publication of MPs' expenses – triumphantly vindicated the principle of openness, but it brought almost the entire political class into disrepute.

We should, then, on balance, favour transparency – but in a clear-eyed way. Not all the workings of government can be open to scrutiny, not every encounter between a party donor and a politician is a conspiracy against the public, and not every rich individual entering politics is inherently suspect. But if politicians are now engaged in competitive self-exposure, the spectacle may be eye-opening, and certainly should be fun.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star