Do we elect a dictator?

(Continuing the enquiry, started last month, into the flaws in our democracy that permit elected leaders to go to war.)


Secrecy in Decision-Making

Honesty is the best policy

Is it possible for a democracy to be completely open, conforming to Tom Paine’s tough criterion that ‘The reason for everything must publicly appear’?  Or in some cases must there be a cloak on decision-taking by a leader or an executive for the sake of security, or to protect other ‘vital interests’ of the state?  If it is essential to take certain decisions in private, it is a pity, for secrecy does not consort well with democracy.  Secrecy gives power to the executive, making it less accountable, and takes away power from the Commons, where, in theory, it properly belongs.  What is more, decisions that are taken secretly, those affecting the security and prosperity of the society, tend to be the most important of all.  If these decisions must be taken secretly, then so much power is effectively drained away from the Commons that the system hardly merits the name of democracy at all.

An elected junta remains a junta. Today leaders appoint an executive of ministers from members of their party, and with sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes minimal input from this chosen band, they determine foreign policy, agree which decisions can be admitted and which are to be official secrets, make treaties, and even declare war with but token reference to the main body of parliament. Can the running of a society be done entirely openly?  The question has not yet had an answer in practice, for such a completely open system has not yet been tried.  Yet it is possible that honesty is not only good in itself, but is also the best practical policy for government.  So let us look at some decisions that have been taken in secret, and see how they have panned out.

The decision made by Prime Minister Attlee behind closed doors to build a British atom bomb was typical of the decision-making process in modern democracies.  Following this tradition, Prime Minister Callaghan and Defence Minister Owen, together with two others from the Labour Cabinet, set aside money for the upgrading of Polaris (the Chevaline project), keeping the decision to do so secret even from the rest of the Cabinet, let alone parliament. A succession of prime ministers, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher, became complicit in the secret decision, which was forced into the public domain only when the expense (£1.2 billion) became impossible to hide any longer.  And when a decision had to be made whether to deploy American Cruise missiles on British soil, it was concluded without reference to the Commons by Prime Minister Thatcher and her minister Francis Pym.

Many secret decisions have turned out badly.  Eden took the decision to invade Suez after discussion with his French and Israeli counterparts, without involving his parliamentary colleagues at all.  President Kennedy clandestinely decided to foster and aid the invasion of Cuba after discussion with a selected group of intimates.  Ronald Reagan decided to arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, even when specifically forbidden to do so by Congress.  And Nixon’s idea to overthrow and murder President Allende and install a military dictatorship in Chile was not, of course, openly discussed in Congress.

The test case of whether secret decision-taking can be good for the nation is when the decision works out well.  Would the Cuban missile crisis have been made worse by an open discussion in Congress of what action to take?  The question cannot be answered with any certainty, of course, but it is clear that the pressure on Khrushchev would have been less if the trade-off of closing down the US bases in Turkey had been openly put on the table, instead of being mentioned to the Soviet leader as a quid pro quo that could not be openly admitted to his people.  To believe that the crisis would have been made worse by open discussion betrays a lack of faith in democracy that seems unjustified.

Harry Davis