Leading Article: ... and why it's good to talk

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The Independent Online
Students of politics are used to doctrines: the doctrine of flexible response (nuclear weapons), the doctrine of ministerial responsibility (relations between Civil Service and Cabinet) and, of course, the doctrine of collective responsibility.

This last doctrine - Short's Bane as it might be dubbed (see above) - seems to be deployed whenever there is the least sign of interesting and genuinely revealing political discussion breaking out in Britain. So keen are the parties to control the agenda that posturing about how right-wing the Tories are - or the looniness behind the mask of Blair - has taken over from any real discussion of how to solve the country's problems.

This is odd. Policemen are free to express their opinions about policy, as are social workers, judges, doctors, journalists and members of the public. Only ministers and shadow ministers are expected to stay silent, or to parrot internal briefing documents, rather than give the voters the benefit of their real views. This means (to paraphrase Yeats) that the best are not allowed to hold any convictions while the worst - pace a well-known roster of back-benchers - are full of a passionate and often ignorant intensity. This high-level reticence is one of the reasons that politicians are held in low esteem by the public - they are seen to behave like school prefects rather than modern professionals.

Of course it would be naive to expect our political parties to abandon collective responsibility on every issue. In Britain it is central to persuading the electorate that you can form a credible government and take difficult decisions together. Where specific policy decisions have been taken by Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet after proper discussion then members who disagree have the option (too infrequently used) to resign and explain their reasons. Otherwise the continual public cacophony of ministers contradicting each other, or resiling from each others' unpopular policies would drown out all sensible debate. Only in Israel, it seems, is the system robust enough to allow the public to know about the inner discussion of cabinet, and to be told how ministers have voted.

So the question is where you draw the line. On broad issues of policy direction and on questions where public debate has not reached a conclusion (such as over drugs, the future of the welfare state and Europe) it is crazy for leading politicians in every party to be so constrained. Sure, it is much more convenient for the spin-doctors, the political ad agencies and the party managers if all the brethren sing resolutely from the same hymn book. It means no more headlines about "embarrassment", no more "gaffes", no more "red faces".

But when - as now - we live in an age that demands a boldness of vision and an openness of debate, such caution actually jeopardises the search for solutions and policies. Adverse headlines in the Daily Rail or the soaraway Bun may be unpleasant, but stifling discussion is, in the long term, much worse.

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