Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, marked his return to Downing Street after recovering from coronavirus with a pledge to act with “maximum possible transparency” in sharing with the British people the government’s approach to the pandemic and its economic consequences.
In principle this is a welcome promise, but it is ambiguous all the same.
On the one hand, it is a question of political language, especially the sort of false promises, misleading claims and empty sloganeering that have contaminated British public life since the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016.
On the other hand, it is a question of what one might with understatement describe as the cautious view about the benefits of transparency taken by all British governments, Conservative or Labour, in the modern era.
Like other phrases coined during the virus emergency, above all the daily, sermon-like declaration of government ministers that their actions are being “guided by the science”, Mr Johnson’s invocation of transparency can mean everything or nothing.
The government’s temptingly imprecise language does not come out of the blue. It is carefully crafted to convey an impression of professional, mature, non-partisan competence and efficiency at the highest levels of state.
But in the end it belongs to the same category of fuzzy, upbeat-sounding political campaign slogans to which the Brexit referendum gave birth, and which flourished thereafter under the governments of Theresa May and Mr Johnson.
Such slogans include “take back control”, “global Britain” and “get Brexit done”.
All served as substitutes for clarity and implied that there was no need for the public to consider what were and still are unavoidable, difficult trade-offs between state sovereignty and economic prosperity, between national identity and international co-operation.
Transparency has not been a feature either of the Johnson government’s behaviour during the virus emergency, or of its approach to Brexit, or of its actions on other public policy issues.
However, the secretiveness began earlier with Mrs May’s government. In her Lancaster House speech of January 2017, which set out the UK’s Brexit objectives, she insisted on the need for strict limits to openness as the negotiations with the EU proceeded.
“Those who urge us to reveal more . . . will not be acting in the national interest . . . every stray word and every hyped-up media report is going to make it harder for us to get the right deal for Britain,” she said.
It sounded oddly aggressive at the time, but less so once it became clear how deeply split her government was about what a good Brexit deal should look like.
The absence of transparency has continued under Mr Johnson, whose government has refused to publish its economic impact assessment of the trade deal it is seeking with the EU.
Of course, the government is fully aware that most private sector economic forecasters, not to mention the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility, which is an independent agency, expect a sizeable hit to economic growth, exports and the public finances.
The politicisation of this issue became blatantly obvious when the government showed no qualms about publishing rosy forecasts on the benefits of a UK-US trade deal.
Another example of secrecy concerns the Johnson government’s delay in publishing a report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee on Russian activities in British politics.
This report was completed in March 2019 and then, after a process of corrections and redactions involving the UK security agencies and the Cabinet Office, was cleared for publication in October.
But the government has sat on the report, claiming that its hands have been tied by the UK’s December general election and then by the need to form a new intelligence and security committee in parliament.
Whether or not the report contains embarrassing details about Russian money and the Conservative party, the fact remains that non-publication is a glaring example of lack of transparency.
One final example is the government’s insistence that it will not publish the names of the individuals who sit on its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), even though many of its members are known to the public anyway.
All in all, there appear to be reasonable grounds for wondering if Mr Johnson’s promise of “maximum possible transparency” will amount to much.
He is the prisoner of deep-seated habits of secrecy in British government, for which he cannot be held primarily responsible, but he is also a leading exponent of the degraded political language of the Brexit era, for which he cannot and should not escape blame.
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