Reining in the State: Lessons from a very British affair

I was in Britain last July when David Kelly committed suicide in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside. Kelly was a leading government scientist and an acknowledged international expert on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities... Let's stand back from the details of this episode and ask what it tells us about the principle of accountability.
March 1 st 2004

I was in Britain last July when David Kelly committed suicide in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside just a few kilometres from where I used to live. Kelly was a leading government scientist and an acknowledged international expert on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. Described by the official report into his death as "a quiet man," he was in fact a man of some nerve, having gone toe to toe with duplicitous senior Iraqi officials when serving with UN weapons inspection teams. His private views on Iraq's current WMD capabilities, however, had been misrepresented by a careless BBC reporter, who blamed the prime minister's office for manipulating—intelligence in order to justify an invasion of Iraq.

The allegation itself unleashed an enormous political storm, and I spent many hours of a family vacation devouring media coverage of the fall-out. Kelly's suicide was a shocking incident, which many at the time thought—might even lead to the downfall of prime minister Tony Blair. In fact, it only led to the (widely unlamented) downfall of his chief communications officer (oh, and that of the much lamented chairman and director general of the BBC).

The 700-odd page report of the official inquiry led by Lord Hutton, released in January, took most people by surprise, effectively exonerating the government from any significant responsibility for Kelly's death or for manipulating intelligence. The report was widely seen as giving all the benefit of the doubt to the government and none to the BBC. The term whitewash was used. Canadians are hoping that this will not be a word that can be used of the report of the inquiry occasioned by the auditor-general's exposure of the misuse of federal funds in Quebec.

But let's stand back from the details of this (very British) episode and ask what it tells us about the principle of accountability. The first thing to say is that in many countries of the world, the suicide of an unknown civil servant would cause barely a stir and would certainly not be seen as meriting any kind of inquiry at all—except by the few opposition politicians, journalists, or human rights activists courageous enough to risk their own necks by saying so in public. Whether or not the conclusions of the Hutton Report are a whitewash, the fact that such an inquiry took place at all shows that the principle of accountability is still powerfully operative in British political culture. Many British citizens—think that it needs to operate much more powerfully and consistently than it currently does. But give me accountability British-style over accountability Zimbabwean-, Iranian-, or Pakistani-style any day. (I trust readers didn't miss the irony here: Britain's own imperial past is itself partly accountable for the weakness of political accountability in each of these three countries; but that's another story). Critics such as Noam Chomsky who suggest that such distinctions are illusory and ideological, or even that governments in countries such as Britain or Canada are actually less accountable than those other three, actually do a disservice to those heroic Zimbabweans, Iranians, or Pakistanis who are campaigning courageously for accountable government in their own countries. They know how vital such distinctions are.

Britain is one of a minority of modern states—including Canada and the United States—in which a long-standing tradition of constitutionalism has been profoundly formative. This doesn't at all mean that such states are epitomes of constitutional probity or that they haven't done many terrible things. (I write the day after the Canadian government finally accepted responsibility for testing chemical weapons on their own soldiers 60 years ago.) It does mean, however, that in each such state there is a deeply embedded expectation that governments will act responsibly and should be held to account if they commit serious wrongs, and that there is some kind of constitutional foothold by which such accountability can, in principle, eventually be realized. Such states are typically called liberal democracies. I prefer to call them constitutional democracies to make clear that one can be both a constitutionalist and a democrat without being committed to the political ideology termed liberalism.

The presence of constitutional democracy in the world today—however flawed or hypocritical its actual embodiments—is a truly momentous historical achievement. We should never be complacent about its survival; we should work to raise its game in our own states, and we should do whatever we can to encourage and assist (not coerce) other states to adopt it, using forms appropriate to their history and culture. Constitutional democracy developed first and most fully in the West, but it must never be seen as a mere cultural idiosyncrasy inappropriate for other societies.

The citizenry of a constitutional democracy will have some credible expectation that the decisions of their government will, to some degree at least, flow out of a process that is representative of their most important interests and beliefs, and that their government will not be able persistently to flout those with impunity. They will also have some credible expectation that political and legal channels exist to restrain, censure, and, where necessary, punish serious governmental misdeeds. Accountability is therefore double-sided: governments are politically accountable via the processes of representative democracy—for example, parliaments can pass a motion of non-confidence in them, and citizens can turf them out through elections, and they are legally accountable through the judicial process—government's subjection to the law must itself be legally enforceable.

In passing, I note that a major question arising here is whether, and if so how, the judiciary are to be held accountable for their decisions. This question becomes acute when those decisions are widely seen to result not from legitimate interpretations of the constitution but from an illicit reading in of controversial political views into the constitution. Some are claiming today that this is exactly what is occurring in regard to leading Canadian court decisions on equality rights, religious freedom, and marriage. They are posing the question: who will judge the judges?

The expectations of citizens in constitutional democracies will never be fully fulfilled and will often be disappointed, sometimes grievously so. But if there remains significant and effective public disapproval of breaches of each of these two kinds of accountability, and some potential for eventual redress, then their state can reasonably claim to be aspiring to the principles of a constitutional democracy. In a world with such terrifyingly powerful and pervasive tendencies toward violence, anarchy, oppression, and many other affronts to human dignity, even a wannabe constitutional democracy is something to be soberly grateful for.

Hutton's acquittal of the British government over the death of David Kelly was not, however, the end of the affair. In light of the seeming absence of any WMD in postwar Iraq, confirmed by David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, prime minister Blair was shortly afterwards forced to set up a second inquiry, this time into the much wider and more portentous question of the credibility of intelligence on WMD. If this had been the result of domestic political pressure, then it could have been cited as yet further evidence of the effectiveness of accountability in Britain. Sadly, it was largely the result of external political pressure created by president Bush's reluctant decision to launch a bipartisan inquiry into the quality of the United States own intelligence, made inevitable after Kay's declaration.

Whether either inquiry will be a whitewash remains to be seen. And, of course, these instruments of accountability have been established only after a costly and deeply contested event, in this case a major war grounded in dubious legality. But better ex post facto accountability than none at all. The unrestrained carnage of the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia led to a major advance in accountability in the United States, the War Powers Act, which requires presidents to obtain Congressional approval before declaring war. George W. Bush and his father both needed such approval before their respective wars on Iraq.

But hang on a moment. Am I really saying that this amounts to some kind of achievement? Surely a constitutional restraint that can't even prevent something as appalling as an illegal war on a foreign state posing no direct threat can't be celebrated as evidence of the working of the principle of accountability? I do indeed want to suggest that, whatever one's view of the legality or morality or the recent war on Iraq, the constitutional requirement of Congressional approval for war-making—and, in Britain, the political requirement for parliamentary approval—is indeed an achievement not at all to be despised. Would we rather president Bush had been able to launch a war on his own personal authority, as in a real dictatorship like Iraq under Saddam (who launched three such)?

Such skepticism, however, usefully alerts us to a deeper dimension of accountability. How was president Bush able to secure such overwhelming Congressional endorsement for a war that was so widely opposed internationally and which many held to be based, at best, in a highly dubious legal warrant? A crucial part of the answer is that the American people were solidly behind it. Their views were indeed faithfully represented to government. Democracy worked—or so it seems. In a constitutional democracy, the consent of citizens can, at least on some occasions, be decisive in shaping government actions. The American people, therefore, are also accountable for the war in Iraq.

Parallels in Canada and Britain are not hard to find. Would successive Canadian governments have been able to get away with their assimilationist policies toward Aboriginal peoples without at least the tacit consent of the majority of Canadian citizens? Would the British government have risked going to war over the Falkland Islands had it not been confident of the support of a majority of the British people? Note that the claim that the respective citizenries of these states share responsibility for the policies of their governments should be accepted irrespective of our stances on each particular policy.

But now two vital questions demand attention. One is simply this: how are citizens' views actually formed? The old liberal rationalist answer that each adult individual has the capacity to form their political views independently of external pressure is surely implausible, especially in an age typified by the systematic distortions of consumerist televisual infotainment. We must confront the prospect that at least some of the views of citizens today, even in free democracies, are manipulated to such a degree that we may need to speak of what Chomsky provocatively names "manufactured consent." (I would disagree, however, with Chomsky's view that the only agency engaging in significant manufacturing of consent is the economic system.) Such consent subverts the aims of constitutional democracy by inverting the proper direction of political influence. While it is unrealistic to expect every citizen to obtain and process all the information required to make an informed judgement on a matter such as the war on Iraq, it is not unrealistic to expect that a variety of significant opinion-formers will be able to do so independently of government. A vigorous public sphere of unconstrained debate, in which access to accurate and relevant information and judgement is possible, is absolutely indispensable for the proper formation of consent in a constitutional democracy.

The second question is: even supposing that citizens form their political views and offer their consent independently, to whom are they accountable for those views? Governments are politically accountable to the people and legally accountable to the courts, but to whom are the people accountable? The standard liberal theory has no answer to this question. Or rather, it has a radically defective answer: the people are accountable only to themselves; they are, in other words, sovereign. For those who hold that absolute sovereignty is never justified whoever holds it, this will not do.

What is the alternative? My view is that, in a constitutional democracy, there is no institutional way to hold the people accountable. In the final analysis, the people must keep themselves in check. Whether and how well they do so depends not firstly on political institutions but on political culture. But here's the rub: will a culture dominated, as is ours, by a view of individuals as fundamentally morally autonomous—as accountable to no higher source of moral authority than themselves—have any reliable way of determining the moral constraints against which their political thinking and judging can be assessed? And can people in such a culture acquire the moral and spiritual resources sufficient to resist the hidden processes by which their consent is manufactured? These, perhaps, are some of the more troubling questions occasioned by the lonely death of a quiet man in an Oxfordshire field.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is former Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.