What the US Impeachment trial can teach the UK about both ministerial accountability and policy evaluation

Two of the brightest rising stars in public policy world have got me thinking about how the country can hold to account those in power, and those that recently wielded it with significant consequences.

The first was Dr Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, and someone qualified to comment with expert insight on what’s happening in the US.

Everything I know about what’s going on over there is either through her or Dr Richard Johnson, formerly of this parish, now at Queen Mary in London. Both have featured as expert analysts on current affairs TV broadcasts.

The second is Ph.D student Dolly Theis, a former Conservative MP-candidate, and now of this parish researching obesity at the MRC Epidemiology Unit in South Cambridge. (She wrote this piece on how her party had dealt with obesity and food policy in an historical context). We spent the past couple of days tweeting to each other over the lack of systematic policy evaluation not just in the public policy process, but in politics generally.

*Being confronted with this footage, and having the events of recent months methodically and painstakingly laid out, is *exactly* why it is worth it.*

Nail. Head. By Dr Lilly in her post at the top. When was the last time that any major piece of UK public policy was set out to the watching public like this? The US network C-SPAN has created a video playlist of highlights and full unedited footage of the trial.

Above – Del. Stacey Plaskett presenting the case to the US Senate Ft Officer E. Goodman.

Because of the extreme polarisation of politics following four years of the previous administration, the broadcast media bubble effect is magnified. So for an audience at home – especially one that otherwise only watches one or two highly and deliberately biased, filtered media streams in favour of one party or another, the manner in which the case is being made by prosecuting members of the US House of Representatives is of significant importance.

One thing to add to Dr Lilly’s comments is the diversity of backgrounds of the members giving the speeches for the prosecution. Compared to past generations, this is one of the most diverse intakes that the Democrats have ever had. This has been reflected in the members giving speeches for the prosecution. This is something that cannot have been missed by the watching public. Imagine if it had been a sea of identikit old men in grey suits, one after the other making the speeches. Don’t think that the UK House of Commons is or was a model of diversity even in recent times – in the 1990s when I first started taking note of party politics when I was at secondary school, the back benches of the Commons were a sea of grey suits. It was in this atmosphere that Betty Boothroyd was elected speaker – see this video and note the wide camera shots during the remarks from the late Tony Benn in 1992.

What is happening in the US is the impeachment trial of a former president. But what would such a trial look like if it were held in the UK, and were not about the prosecution of a head of government current or former, but of a major policy issue of massive, widespread and long term impact?

The Iraq War – Tony Blair on trial.

Nearly 15 years ago Channel 4 commissioned a TV drama imagining a future scenario where former PM Tony Blair found himself up before an international war crimes tribunal. The Trial of Tony Blair – brilliantly played by Robert Lindsay back in 2007. But the programme I was looking for, that I’ve not been able to find, was one where one of the TV channels broadcast a show where they prosecuted the case for going to war in Iraq – led by two senior barristers who were able to call on participating expert witnesses. For some reason the face of Bob Marshall Andrews QC MP (Lab – Medway 1997-2010) is one participant who stands out in my memory! But Dr Lilly’s comment on how the evidence in the Impeachment Trial is being laid out for not just the Senators but also the viewing public, was one that really got me thinking about how the model of prosecution might work for a specific major policy long after implementation.

Brexit on trial?

This should be something that is right up the street of Channel 4 to commission – and my guess is that it could get significant ratings if they got the structure and participants spot on. And such a programme should not simply be designed to be a TV hatchet job/show trial on a handful of high profile Brexiteers – satisfying though this might be for strong pro-EU activists. The role of the pro-Remain campaign also needs to be put on trial. The role of the broadcast media, and of the print press, and of social media corporations needs to be put on trial as well.

“Why does the pro-Remain campaign need to be on trial?”

Because the leaders and senior politicians in the mainstream political parties have a culpability in terms of why we are where we are – and this needs to be examined. How was it that the pro-Remain campaign was so feeble in the run up to 2016, and yet in the years that followed it built up to one of the biggest single day pro-EU demonstrations in the continent’s history?

…and then how was it that nine months later the most extreme of anti-EU Governments since the UK joined the EEC back in 1973 won the general election of 2019 by a landslide? Despite that huge majority, how is it now, with the UK officially a third country, so many UK firms that trade with the EU are struggling to the extent that former markets are now completely cut off? How many are now having to transfer jobs and functions to continental Europe or Ireland?

How is it that now, the public have to pay customs duties for products they buy off the internet that come from the EU? (My cola-flavour fido dido sweets I ordered ages ago are still stuck somewhere between Germany and the UK – the last order being cancelled. This despite previous orders before 2021 having no problems at all.

Angry Dragon : Puffles – whose supply off essential goods from Germany has now been interrupted.

Then there are the lost tax revenues as various financial activities move out of London. How do promises made by campaigning politicians in 2016 match up to what is actually happening after the UK left at the start of 2021?

Or is it part of a secret plan to overhaul the global economy and rein in the out of control global finance system that amongst other things is driving economic activities that are harming societies and destroying the planet?

I come back to Dr Lilly’s post, paraphrased for Brexit:

“Having the events leading up to the EU referendum, and what followed it, methodically and painstakingly laid out, is *exactly* why it is worth it.*

It is the systematic nature of this, in front of a large public audience (with the highlights going to the Gogglebox crew) on something that we are all affected by (Same storm, different boats) that could make this significant. So one theme might be a trade deal with the EU.

  1. Theme (eg Trade deal)
  2. Pre-referendum announcement. Which were the repeated claims, made by whom, based on what, published when and where?
  3. EU-Referendum policy announced by the Tories in 2014 – same Qs as in 2). Which, what, when, where, and by whom?
  4. Tories win general election – EU referendum preparations. same Qs as in 2).
  5. EU Referendum campaign groups form. (Official and unofficial).
  6. Official campaigning period – same Qs as in 2) – and were there any changes to what was said before the vote? (If so, what were the changes and by whom?)
  7. Theresa May takes power, same Qs as in 2)
  8. Theresa May resigns, Johnson & Hunt campaign for leadership. same Qs as in 2)
  9. Boris Johnson wins Tory leadership – same Qs as in 2)
  10. Boris Johnson calls for general elections – declined at first. same Qs as in 2)
  11. Boris Johnson secures general election – same Qs as in 2)
  12. Boris Johnson wins general election – same Qs as in 2)
  13. Boris Johnson negotiates deal – same Qs as in 2)
  14. Boris Johnson signs deal – same Qs as in 2)
  15. Britain leaves the EU and transition period ends. What are the arrangements we now have, and how does this compare with all of the previous periods?

The point being such a process would demonstrate with slide quotations and video clips of the politicians and ministers speaking, of who stated what and when, and quickly compared to how things have actually turned out.

“This could go badly wrong and easily become a Royal Commission kicked into the grass for a very long time. Think how long Chilcott took.”

That is why the people who stand up in public/on TV to make the case have to be persons of the highest calibre and who have done significant preparation for this. Otherwise what should be watching an expert barrister presenting a very well-researched and prepared case against a defendant or witness with a case to answer, ends up becoming a boring, rambling lecture by someone who is just winging it. So that means being ruthlessly selective with the choice of quotations and video footage used in order to weave it into a compelling narrative that enables an audience of the general public to understand what happened, why, and be able to form an informed opinion about it all. Informed as in on the basis of the evidence they have seen for both ‘prosecution’ and ‘defence’, for want of other terms.

“This could not be done in a day – it’s be a significant undertaking”

With that in mind, that would be why breaking it up into themes would be beneficial to the watching audience. Rather than trying to rush through to cover all bases, there are going to be different themes that will interest some more than other. For example agriculture and fisheries will have a direct impact on those living in rural areas with an agricultural economic base, and the coastal towns with a long heritage of a fishing and marine life industry. This theme may not be of interest to people living in a large city with a strong interest in the functioning of the media – who would be more likely to find an analysis of the media coverage, of the questions asked by broadcast journalists and lobby correspondents, and of the decisions on what to broadcast/print taken by senior executives, producers and editors to be of far more interest.

“…methodically and painstakingly laid out, is *exactly* why it is worth it”

Again, coming back to Dr Lilly’s quotation. We don’t have broadcasts of anything where a public policy is methodically laid out for public consumption, let alone public interaction. And one of the reasons for that is the lack of systematic public policy evaluation. We don’t have a national political culture of evaluating public policies – despite the inevitable ‘we will learn the lessons of…’ comments by senior politicians after a general election defeat, or from ministers when something has gone catastrophically wrong leading to the loss of life in their policy area of responsibility.

Take Ms Theis’ comments on evaluation and then apply it to things like coroners reports or public inquiries of the past decade. How many of the recommendations to ministers in such reports have been implemented in full? We can extend this further to Parliamentary select committees. If each select committee went through all of the reports it had produced going back to say the Banking Crisis, and analysed how many of their recommendations to ministers had been acted upon by ministers, what would the figure be? What is the reporting mechanism for select committees by which ministers inform them that a recommendation has been acted upon and delivered?

Because if institutions responsible for holding ministers accountable for their decisions are routinely ignored by said ministers, what does it say about the concept of ministerial accountability to Parliament?

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