1980s >> 1986 >> no-979-march-1986

Lies, leaks and “authorised disclosures”

Which is the most depressing spectacle – the pious penitence of Leon Brittan, forced to resign over a “genuine misunderstanding” about the correct way to leak a letter, the flamboyant exit from the cabinet of Michael Heseltine, the man who did the “honourable thing” because he couldn’t take the Prime Minister’s autocratic manner any longer; the pathetic protestations of Margaret Thatcher that she didn’t know that any of these underhand events were going on; or the sanctimonious bleatings of the opposition?

Who do they think they’re kidding? Anyone with an ounce of common sense realises that Leon Brittan resigned because he was caught in the act and his fellow Tories regarded him as a liability. He didn’t resign voluntarily because of a breach of trust, but because he was forced to by his fellow Tories. Heseltine, the man who couldn’t “remain with honour” in Thatcher’s cabinet, took a bloody long time to make up his mind that he was such a principled politician. After all, it has not been only during the Westland business that the Prime Minister has run her cabinet like Attila the Hun; the sacked cabinet ministers who litter the Tory backbenches bear witness to the way she has usually dealt with dissidents. No, Heseltine probably thought he could get some political mileage out of his resignation, which might help in his bid to be the next Tory leader. And as for Thatcher s innocence – how stupid does she think we all are? Are we honestly to believe that members of her own office decide to leak a letter to discredit a member of the cabinet and then forget to tell her about it? Kinnock, Owen. Steel or any of the other politicians would never of course have engaged in such political machinations, would they? And, no, of course they’re not really gloating at the possibility that they might, after all, be in with a chance at the next election.

The details of who said what, when and why, have been endlessly rehearsed and it seems unlikely, in the face of Cabinet minutes being tampered with, different versions of the same meeting being put about, and the government’s reluctance to allow key civil servants to give evidence to the select committee, that the truth will ever be known. But what does it matter: the essentials of the Westland story are damning enough already.

So let’s start at the beginning. A small company in Yeovil is unable to make sufficient profit from helicopter manufacture to continue its operations. Offers to buy into the company and prevent it from going to the wall are received from two rival groups of capitalists: Sikorsky-Fiat in the mainly American comer, and the European Consortium. Nothing unusual so far – all part of the normal process of big capital buying out little capital. The chairman of Westland, John Cuckney, and the board of directors prefer the American offer and decide to recommend it to the company’s shareholders.

Meanwhile the two rival bids are championed in the Cabinet by Heseltine, the Defence Secretary who favours the European bid, and Brittan/Thatcher who favour the Americans. Heseltine tries to play the “national interest” card (usually a winner) – do we want to lose control of a vital part of our defence industry to the Americans? But he is trumped by Brittan/Thatcher who publicly play the non-partisan, market forces, leave-it-to-the shareholders card, while privately leaning very heavily on British Aerospace (part of the European consortium) to try to make them leave the field open for the Americans.

The motives behind this political partisanship are immaterial: maybe Heseltine does genuinely believe that the “national” interest will be best served if Westland is taken over by the European consortium. Maybe Thatcher and Brittan do have good reasons for wanting the American bid to succeed. Who knows; who cares? Squabbles between rival groups of capitalists trying to grab a bigger share of the cake go on all the time and given the close links between capital and politicians it’s not surprising that their case should be taken up by rival groups in the cabinet, especially since Westland provides military hardware.

It’s not surprising that politicians take sides in arguments between capitalists; what is unusual is that they should be seen to do so. Governments are not supposed to appear partisan. So the Thatcher/Brittan faction in the Cabinet tried to silence the renegade Heseltine by making him promise to abide by the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, which means that he should agree with the rest of them, in public at least. At this point Heseltine discovered that he was a “man of principle” and walked out of the Cabinet.

Meanwhile selected bits of a letter from Patrick Mayhew. the Solicitor-General, to Heseltine. complaining of “material inaccuracies” (lies) in a letter he had written to Lloyds, advisors to the European consortium, were leaked to the press. Mayhew complained. The Prime Minister set up a leak enquiry which told her that there hadn’t been a leak but an “authorised disclosure” – authorised in fact by Brittan in consultation with the Prime Minister’s own staff at Downing Street. So the finger was pointing at Brittan, not because he had authorised the leaking of a letter – authorised leaks occur all the time – but because he had bungled the job and got caught. The Tory back-benches immediately closed ranks and left poor Leon out in the cold – none of them wanted to be tainted by his failure. Thatcher has lived to fight another day although her reputation looks a bit battered. She’s obviously still got a lot to hide, which is why she’s against letting the civil servants directly responsible for the leak appear before the Select Committee. Trying to explain the increased unemployment figures (which, we were assured. were on the way down) no doubt now appears an easier task than trying to explain her own part in this saga of political dirty tricks.

So what conclusions should we draw from this sordid political episode?

Firstly, it doesn’t really matter to us, the workers, who runs Westland. Whether it’s Sikorsky, the European Consortium or Colonel Gaddaffi (who managed to get a look in, too, at one point): they would all run it according to the laws of capitalism, namely that if there’s money in it, make it; if there’s not, then don’t. Secondly, the politicians involved have been lying, distorting the facts, using the media to put across mis-information, all for their own political ends. Thirdly, despite their attempts to appear whiter- than-white, the opposition politicians have gloried in the apparent demise of Thatcher and Co. because it serves their political ends. Finally, even if Thatcher had not demonstrated the most amazing ineptitude in her handling of the whole business – even if cabinet government had worked as it is supposed to, even if the letter hadn’t been leaked but released to the Press Association through the “usual channels”, what difference would it have made?

For cabinet government, a pillar of our own so-called democratic system, is anything but democratic. Democracy, if it is to have any real meaning, if it is to be anything more than a propaganda buzz word for politicians, must, at the very least, include the following:

  • equal opportunity for everyone to participate in decision-making;
  • equal access by all participants in that decision-making process to the relevant information. facts and resources;
  • review and scrutiny of decisions made, with those given responsibility being held accountable to the whole community.

What happens in Britain today? We elect “representatives” – MPs – from a limited choice of a few candidates whose parties can afford to sponsor them and who have a virtual monopoly of access to the media. They campaign on a broad platform of promises which they may or may not keep once elected. As MPs they vote on a legislative programme put forward by the party with the most seats in Parliament (although not necessarily the most votes in the country). They decide which way to vote, not on the basis of the wishes of the constituents who they claim to be representing, but in accordance with the wishes of their party as dictated by the party whips. If their party is the largest, and if they make a good impression on the leadership, then they are appointed by the Prime Minister to ministerial office and those with the top jobs form the Cabinet.

The theory behind cabinet government is that ministers collectively discuss issues, the Prime Minister takes their advice and eventually a policy is hammered out, or decisions are taken. Once arrived at, those decisions are publicly defended by the whole cabinet in a show of unanimity which disguises the fact that there were probably disagreements between them. However, not all decisions are taken by the Cabinet. In fact many of the most important of them are taken by the Prime Minister in consultation with a few chosen ministers, or in secret cabinet committees. So in many cases decisions are taken without even the full cabinet knowing about them, let alone “our” elected representatives. And the more important the decision is, the fewer people are likely to know about it. Senior civil servants are also important since they brief ministers, draw up agendas, minute meetings, listen to the views of important pressure groups and generally control the flow of information.

Decisions made by the government are, in theory, subject to scrutiny by the whole of Parliament through MPs’ questions, the work of select committees and government inquiries. In practice the government is able to hide behind the Official Secrets act, “national security” and the fact that it will be at least thirty years before anyone will get access to government papers, which even then are weeded to remove items deemed to be injurious to the “national interest”. MPs are often unable to question ministers effectively because they lack access to information on which to base their questions. How can you ask a minister why he or she made a particular decision if you don’t even know a decision has been taken?

So, representatives sitting in Parliament, cabinet government (whether or not the Prime Minister listens to her ministers), and Parliamentary scrutiny, do not add up to democracy as socialists understand it. Government on behalf of the capitalist class means no representation of workers’ interests and no control over the decision-making process.

It is significant that although unemployment is higher than ever before, although education, welfare and health provision are being cut and our limited civil “liberties” are being still further eroded, it was none of these factors which shook the government. No, it was a conflict between rival capitalists and members of the ruling class a conflict that has nothing whatsoever to do with workers’ lives.

Janie Percy-Smith