Eternal Vigilance – “In My View” By Nigel Ward

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Eternal Vigilance – “In My View” By Nigel Ward

Further Reading From Nigel


Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and principle author of the US Declaration of Independence, is credited with this dictum: “The price of democracy is eternal vigilance”.

Jefferson is not without his critics, but on the matter of eternal vigilance, few who have observed the behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats would venture to disagree.

Not that there are no honourable politicians or conscientious bureaucrats; far from it. But it is in the nature of hierarchical organisations that it is the clever and the ambitious who attain high office – where they wield great power and influence, constrained by little more than the integrity of their own consciences.

As we know, power corrupts. Not always, perhaps, and not absolutely. But it would take some considerable naïvety to believe that there could never be wrong-doing in the world of local government; which is why there are checks and balances built into the ‘system’.

The ‘system’, in this case, is founded upon the Local Government Act 1972 – forty years, old and much amended over the years, but still a superbly drafted blue-print for equitable local government – and the Representation of the People Act 1983, also much refined by Amendment.

Fundamentally, democracy is about voting.

How is it, then, that the cost of elections has been cited by County, Borough and Town (Parish) Councillors – and by SBC Chief Executive Jim Dillon – as a reason to leave seats vacant or invoke the Co-Option process? Democracy is primarily about voting.

How is it that only 7 of the 19 Whitby Town (Parish) Councillors have contested (and won) their seats at the ballot box? Democracy is about voting, isn’t it?

How is it that the Whitby Town Mayor and his Deputy have not a vote between them, when democracy is about voting?

So we see that the very first of our checks and balances has been measurably diluted.

The right of public and press to attend meetings of Councils and their Committees is also enshrined in law.

Having elected representatives, the public has the right to observe their performance ‘live’, in real-time, both in debate and in the way they vote on specific resolutions. Even amongst the already elected, democracy is about voting.

Public consultation is required by law. This may take the form of quantifiable questionnaires or, more formally, formal referenda. Again, democracy is about voting.

How is it, then, that consultations that produce results contrary to corporate strategy are ignored, re-drafted and brought back time and again until, by a process of attrition, public resistance is whittled away?

How is it that the vast and overwhelming majority of people feel, with a deep conviction, that the disparity between minimum wage and bankers’ bonuses is morally indefensible – but are ignored?

How is it that the vast and overwhelming majority of people feel, with a deep conviction, that militarism and war is morally indefensible – but are ignored? Democracy is about voting, for heaven’s sake!

On a local level, having first elected our representatives – our Parish, Borough and County Councillors – we have recourse to more checks and balances.

Councillors (and only recently, and after much campaigning, Officers) must declare their interests on a Register of Interests. Councillors are not forbidden to hold business interests outside of their Council commitments, but they must make those interests available to public scrutiny. It might be, for example, that a Councillor holds a directorship in a company that regularly supplies goods or services to the Council. That must be declared, because it would be wholly inappropriate for a Councillor to cast a vote in favour of the Council placing an order (large or small) with his own firm.

Providing that the Councillor’s business interests are publicly available, and the Councillor takes no part in any vote that may benefit his (or her) own interests, the public can be assured of the Councillor’s impartiality – and, equally, the Councillor’s own integrity is protected. Democracy is about transparency.

Any Councillor who denies that knowledge to the public is a cheat, because he (or she) has deprived the public of transparency by concealing a self-interest. Democracy is about accountability.

But accountability is not about blame; it is about acknowledging errors of judgement – because the first step towards a more equitable governance is the eradication of abuse of privilege of position.

Accountability is not about putting self-serving Councillors and Officers behind bars; it is about cutting the cancer of self-interest out of the system.

The crucial importance of transparency is enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which grants ANY member of the public the right to ask ANY public body for all the information they have on ANY subject. Unless there is a legitimate reason, the organisation must provide the information within 20 working days. You can also ask for all the personal information they hold on you.

Council Legal Departments, who handle FOIA requests, are extraordinarily adept at providing the bare minimum of information identified in the form of words of the request. It is no easy task to formulate a request for information in such a way is to ensure a clear response. Answers to complex questions are invariably provided in legal language that is extremely impenetrable to lay people of no legal training. Yet democracy is about transparency, right?

The Rt. Hon. Eric Pickles, Conservative MP for Brentwood & Ongar, and Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government, had this to say on the subject of accountability and transparency:

”If councillors and council officers are to be held to account, the press and public need access to the information that will enable them to do it. If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place. The simple act of throwing open the books, rather than waiting for them to be prised apart by the force of an FOI, might even save a few pounds in the process.” – [Eric Pickles – 2011]

The hardest part about the ‘eternal vigilance’ injunction is the ‘eternal’ bit.

In fact, one can see ‘eternal apathy’ far more in evidence than any vigilance at all. Decades of local politicians bound to national party lines have left the overwhelming majority feeling that Conservative, LibDem and Labour party values (even where the distinctions remain clear) have little relevance at local level. “How to choose?” is swiftly followed by “Why bother at all?” And indeed, the overwhelming majority (60% in the SBC Elections last May did not bother to vote at all, as compared to 16.8% who voted for the winning Tories)

Councillors are elected for four-year terms, renewable at the prerogative of the electorate, but Officers often have a much longer tenure. The cabinet system adopted by SBC has placed extraordinary power and influence in the hands of a very few Conservative Councillors over a period of many years. As we know, power corrupts. Policies like appointing (rather than electing) the membership of Stakeholders’ Steering Groups, and multiple-choice consultation questionnaires, effectively channel developments in accordance with the policy initiatives of those few familiar faces at the head of the Council.

It may be that those ‘movers and shakers’ have “The greatest good for the greatest number” deeply engraved in their hearts. It may be that they really do know best and the public is simply too ignorant to recognise that fact. It may be that they seek no personal advantage or privilege. One would like to think so.

But as we have seen, the checks and balances are mightily diluted and the votes – the voice of the people – go all too often ignored.

Eric Pickles considers the case for eternal vigilance well made. Me too.

It is regrettable that so many are content to leave the burden of that vigilance to so few.

By |2012-03-26T22:39:20+00:00March 26th, 2012|Categories: Featured, News, Nigel Ward - In My View|Tags: , , |6 Comments

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  1. Jon Risdon March 22, 2012 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    Food for thought Nigel; unfortunately, I fear this category of discourse is the product of a worryingly small amount of fertile soil: there seems to be an awful lot of stony ground out there.

  2. vanda inman March 23, 2012 at 2:55 am - Reply

    Perhpas democracy gives people the power to choose and they choose not to use it. Personally I think on every ballot paper should be a box that says “None of the above”. Would that be more democratic?

  3. vanda inman March 23, 2012 at 3:29 am - Reply

    mmmm this is a tough one ethical and political philosophy, the art of decision making, must give it some more thought. Meanwhile where does the power lie – in the hands of ‘democracy’ or the instigator of the change? eg our Town Hall who decided it was a problem that needed change? I really don’t remember lots of people standing outside saying this Town Hall has to go.

  4. Nick March 23, 2012 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Very interesting reading.
    Hopefully it provokes more people into the act of actually thinking about what goes on behind closed doors (i.e. those at the Town Hall), and then spurs them into action to demand that those doors be flung open.
    A good article Nigel. Thanks.

  5. Harold Locker March 23, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply

    I’ve long believed there should be a “none of the above” option on ballot papers. The down side, though, would probably mean that elections would probably get even more drawn out.

    In a perfect world I would drop the Party system as it it, by definition, a divisive structure. Parties have to be seen to be holding conflicting views and it often feels to me that more effort is spent on arguing the differences than actually running the various areas of the country.

    But in a perfect world I would also be able to name a viable alternative! Maybe scale up the American County system where we don’t vote for the the over-acrching party, but the person we want to run the NHS? Possibly something like that. Basically a way of voting on the Issues rather then the Parties. I hope that makes sense.

  6. pete budd March 27, 2012 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Uniquely among Parish Councils, Whitby does not post it’s agenda in a prominent, accessible public place as required by Law, and hides it’s clerk in an upstairs office at the back of a museum with public access prohibited. Furthermore it chooses not to display it’s minutes, nor it’s register of member’s interests at it’s place of meeting.
    These are errors of profound importance in the conduct of public affairs and the dispersal of the public’s money.
    I have asked to be told the location of the Parish Notice Board.
    I do not anticipate “a reply in writing in due course”.

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