The wrong message
David Estwick’s actions go against parliamentary conventions
One of the persistent myths about parliamentary politics in Barbados is that we have somehow adopted the Westminster/Whitehall model and, by implication, the way our politics operate is the way things are done in Britain.
This misleading belief is but one of many self-portraits we wrap ourselves in which have no relation to reality.
Truth be told, all former colonies had their administrative and political models based on the mother country, but over the years we have grown apart.
The myth of similarity goes along with the notion that we have 98 per cent literacy, that we are a first world nation, that we punch above our weight, that we are the best cricketing nation in the world and that our public discourse is highly sophisticated.
Not a single one of these is true, or nearly true: we are a functionally illiterate nation unprepared for a modern technological world; we are not first world even if we do well to call ourselves a middle ranking nation; our voice is irrelevant in world forums; the independence cricket match, Barbados versus the Rest Of The World, should have put paid to our claims of cricketing supremacy; and the yahoo politics centred around the economic mess the nation is in should put paid to the idea of high-class debates.
In the very first paragraph of the summary of the House of Commons research paper on collective responsibility, The Collective Responsibility Of Ministers – An Outline Of The Issues, it is stated: “The convention of collective Cabinet, or ministerial, responsibility is at the heart of the British system of parliamentary government, yet, like individual responsibility, it is a concept which is not regulated by statute, although some guidance has been formalised in the Ministerial Code.”
Barbados is an independent jurisdiction and makes its own laws and develops its own customs, but if our constitutional experts continue to refer to the Westminster/Whitehall model, then our parliamentary practices must be judged on that model, that is the yardstick we set ourselves.
Chapter Four of the Cabinet Manual, the official guide for Westminster parliamentary practice, tells us in the introduction: “Government is a large and complex organisation and so it needs formal and informal mechanisms for discussing issues, building consensus, resolving disputes, taking decisions and monitoring progress.
“By convention, cabinet and cabinet committees take decisions which are binding on members of government.
“Cabinet and cabinet committees are composed of government ministers, who are then accountable to parliament for any collective decisions made.
“Collective responsibility allows ministers to express their views frankly in discussion, in the expectation that they can maintain a united front once a decision has been reached.”
Under the Westminster system of government, business is brokered informally in committee and sub-committees and in the corridors of Whitehall before they get on the Cabinet agenda.
In this way, by the time Cabinet comes to discuss an issue there is an informal understanding as to people’s positions and the compromises that have to be made, what Professor Robert Hazell, the constitutional expert, calls “pre-cooking”.
Section 2 of the British Coalition Government’s Agreement for Stability and Reform states: “(para: 2.1) The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, continues to apply to all Government Ministers. This requires (a) appropriate degree of consultation and discussion among Ministers to provide the opportunity for them to express their views frankly as decisions are reached.”
That, in brief, is how the Westminster model of collective Cabinet responsibility works, which minister Estwick has driven a coach and horses through with an incredible arrogance.
Equally surprising is that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, a senior barrister therefore presumably familiar with parliamentary conventions, has allowed Dr Estwick to challenge his authority by first, going public with his opposition to Government economic policy, and, second demanding that he be allowed to put his views to a full meeting of Cabinet. This is political blackmail.
It follows on similar dissent from Donville Inniss, who has spoken out on a number of occasions outside his brief as a minister and the comment made by the governor of the central bank, a technocrat, that VAT should be abolished.
Cabinet collective responsibility is also embedded in the Ministerial Code (para 2.3), which binds all ministers to the principle of collective responsibility.
As the Cabinet Manual points out (para 4.3): “In practice, this means that a decision of Cabinet or one of its committees is binding on all members of the Government, regardless of whether they were present when the decision was taken or their personal views.”
The historic Westminster tradition is that if a member of the Cabinet, or a minister at any level, disagrees with the Government to such an extent that he or she wants to break rank, the first thing that minister does is to resign and return to the back benches.
David Butler, in his essay: The Changing Constitution In Context, published in The British Constitution, edited by Matt Qvortrup, writing about collective Cabinet responsibility said: “The old doctrine survives that ‘any minister who disagrees with government policy must resign – or at least keep silent,’ for the old reason ‘we must all hang together lest we hang separately’.
“But leaks about ministers’ disagreements and reservations have vastly increased, and the fact that so much less is now debated in full Cabinet means that the doctrine has been seriously eroded, even though recent decades have still seen principled resignations over collective responsibility (for example, Heseltine 1986, Lawson 1989, Howe 1990, Cook 2003).”
It is right and proper that a dissenting minister who feels strongly enough about an issue should resign and make his/her case from outside the Cabinet, but a minister at odds with his Cabinet colleagues cannot in principle stay in the Cabinet while at the same time publicly distancing him/herself from its decisions.
What ministers do not do is to hold on to their portfolios while taking pot shots at the government from inside; it is not only wrong in terms of parliamentary tradition, but ethically despicable also.
One of the most famous examples of a secretary of state walking out of a Cabinet over a disagreement with his colleagues was when Michael Heseltine, then defence secretary, walked out of the Thatcher government over the Westland affair.
Then there was the youthful James Purnell, then work and pensions secretary, who walked out of the Gordon Brown Cabinet, and followed up his resignation with a letter to the news media calling on prime minister Brown to resign.
In his letter, he stated: “I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less, likely.”
Although Dr Estwick has not articulated his disagreement with the Government with such sophistication, apart from a flawed call to borrow money from the United Arab Emirates, he is clearly out of step with its economic policy.
One recent example in British Cabinet government of a deep division was that of the Tony Blair government in which Gordon Brown served as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
It is now a matter of historical record that the two men had their differences of opinion, but as far as collective Cabinet responsibility was concerned, apart from the occasional press leak, they stuck steadfast to the convention.
So, even at its most divisive, the British Cabinet sticks to the principles and conventions of joint responsibility. Again, this is the real Westminster model at work.
David Feldman, in his essay Constitutional Conventions (in The British Constitution, ed Matt Qvortrupp), quoting Peter Morton, reminds us: “First, conventions arise from and operate within a constitutional tradition which, in the UK, is one of respect for fundamental values, including government by consent, individual freedom, diversity of opinion, contestation as the essence of political life and ethical standards of behaviour in politics.”
By no single measure has Dr Estwick’s terrible behaviour can be described as ethical or showing the slightest respect for fundamental political values.
These brief examples of the lack of discipline in Cabinet send the message, if it were needed, that the Stuart Cabinet is not united and that policymaking is a lottery.
Maybe one reason the prime minister tolerates Dr Estwick’s eccentricities is that this government is so grossly incompetent voters rightly see his opposition as the voice of the majority.
Of course, cynics may equally say that prime minister Stuart gives greater weight to holding on to power than the principles of government.
Dr Estwick’s behaviour may be understandable in the context that there has not been any serious economic policy discussion in the government and his idiotic idea of accepting a loan from the despotic United Arab Emirates has political legitimacy.
This flawed and badly thought-out idea does not address the widening wealth gap in Barbados, the cosy lives that the expatriates enjoy at the expense of local people and the drift back in to mud huts by an abandoned minority of often mentally disturbed and acutely pauperised men and women.
In fact, it does not address the unforgiving nature of Barbadian society in which the well connected do well and the marginalised have to look after themselves, a classic demonstration of social Darwinism.
Yet again it is another example, as if further proof was needed, of our academic economists not allowing their precious hands to be dirtied with any such thing as a discussion on economic policy and our journalists not holding them to account.
Dr Estwick’s behaviour also has implication for ordinary citizens and the rule of law, since of our lawmakers clearly do not play by the rules, it is very difficult for the boys and girls on the block to accept the authority of our institutions.
Finally, I want to reiterate a point I have made on a number of occasions: the reason why Dr Estwick’s irrational behaviour has not met any public opprobrium is a direct result of the poor quality of public debate in Barbados.
Rabble rousing and personal abuse have long substituted for detailed analyses of opponents’ view and policies and it is one generally endorsed by the general public.
The price we pay is the diminishing of our society
Further, it does not help Dr Estwick’s case that he has an unfortunate personality and often comes over like a Rottweiler on steroids.
In time, the Estwick case will be taught in legal, political and parliamentary history classes for years to come as an example of the collapse of collective Cabinet responsibility under a weak prime minister.
In the unique case of this Barbados government, it is a symptom of a failing state.
As the Westminster Cabinet Manual says, “it is for the Prime Minister, as chair of the Cabinet, or the relevant Cabinet committee chair, to summarise what the collective decision is, and this is recorded in the minutes by the Cabinet Secretariat”.
Collective responsibility can also be canvassed by electronic or traditional correspondence.
At some point the people of Barbados, and in particular the ruling political and social elite, must come to the realisation that Barbados is a little island, the size of some Australian and Brazilian sugar cane plantations, which just happens to do relatively well.
But as to being world class, even in cricket, they must come alive someday.
(Hal Austin is a Barbadian, and a senior editor of the Financial Times magazine in London.)