Centre Write
Monday, 07 August 2017 11:00

Thomas Tozer: Transparency vs. leverage in our representative democracy

In a BBC Question Time election special just days before the polls were to open, the leaders of Britain’s two main political parties faced, one after the other, 45 minutes of questions from a sharp, unforgiving audience. Of particular and predictable interest were Theresa May’s position on Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Trident – the UK’s nuclear weapons system. Both candidates faced challenges regarding their lack of clarity on these issues. May was asked to specify how large the UK’s ‘divorce bill’ from the EU would be, and Corbyn was criticised for refusing to give a definite answer on whether he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in retaliation.

A superficial analysis might suggest that each candidate was, by their lack of clarity, failing to inform the electorate of their views. Hence, so the analysis might run, they were contravening one of the fundamental principles of representative democracy – that the voters must be able to know what they are voting for. Yet the leaders’ somewhat non-committal stance on these two issues may in fact have been the result of their facing a hidden dilemma between two norms of representative democracy; the need to be transparent about one’s political intentions, and the need to maximise political leverage in order that the good of the people can best be served.

To understand why this dilemma sometimes arises, we must look to two competing conceptions of the political representative: as a delegate, and as a trustee. The first conception holds that the voters should delegate their political preferences to the political representative. According to this conception of representation, in the context of British politics (for which each candidate espouses a particular pre-specified political position) transparency is crucial. The voter must know what policy positions each representative stands for, in order that she can work out which candidate will best fulfil her policy preferences.

The second conception holds that the representative is a trustee whose decisions about the best policies to pursue are entirely his own. Thus, the voter does not expect the representative to necessarily act in accord with her [the voter’s] preferences, but rather trusts the representative to make the best decisions. According to this conception of political representation, then, transparency is not important at all. The only thing that matters is that the representative can be trusted to work out and follow the best course of action. I.e. the course of action that, roughly, is most likely to maximise the welfare of the people. This ability to pursue the best course of action will likely sometimes be best served by the maximization of political leverage. A conflict of interest between countries will often produce such a scenario.

Consider now the Question Time challenge to Theresa May about the size of the UK’s divorce bill. From the perspective of transparency, the voters have a right to know how much of the taxpayers’ money May intends to spend on such a bill. Indeed, as the moderator David Dimbleby exclaimed when May refused to directly answer this question, ‘It is his [the questioner’s] money you’re spending!’

Yet concern for political leverage, the maximization of which would (let us assume) enable Britain to obtain the best possible post-Brexit deal from the EU, including the lowest divorce bill, would recommend the opposite approach. For as May pointed out, giving a particular figure on the size of the divorce bill would not make for a ‘good negotiating stance’. If you go into a negotiation specifying precisely what you want out of it, she contended, then you can be certain that the other side is going to try to ensure that you do not get it. (Or to be more precise, I would suggest, that if you do get it then you do so at a far higher price than you would have done otherwise). Later, when challenged about her manifesto’s lack of detail on Brexit, May’s responded that she was asking the public for their ‘trust’. This is illuminating. It implies that, indeed, she was espousing the trustee model of representation in her approach to Brexit. This is what we would expect if a representative is choosing to privilege leverage over transparency.

Consider also May’s much tooted declaration that, in the EU negotiations, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. This statement has been criticized heavily on both the left and the right, by casual commentators and scholarly authors alike. In particular, it has been objected that ‘no deal’ would mean falling back to WTO economic terms. This result, so the objection goes, would have such economically unpleasant results that even a ‘bad deal’ with the EU would be preferable to it.

What such analysis ignores, however, is the possibility that Theresa May has been playing a rather more clever game than first meets the eye. Perhaps her ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra is nothing more than a bluff. Her intention in saying this might merely be to bolster her negotiating stance with the EU, and thus boost her political leverage, by providing no baseline demand that the EU could lever against her in negotiations. Perhaps she does not actually believe this mantra at all.

But even if this is the case, such an approach is politically difficult to justify. For if Theresa May were to be transparent about such a strategy to the public and the press then this would thereby invalidate it. The EU would learn that May was bluffing, and her ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ proclamation would become vacuous. Yet without spelling out the leverage justification (and let us assume here that this was indeed her reason for the declaration), May rendered herself liable to be attacked, as indeed she was, for the apparent political deficiencies of such a statement.

Let us turn now to Corbyn’s stance on Trident. The audience reacted angrily when Corbyn tried to avoid answering whether he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. Elsewhere, he has also been criticised for the fact that the most recent Labour manifesto commits to the renewal of Trident, even though he personally opposes that renewal.

The interesting point here is that Trident is intended principally as a nuclear deterrent. To that end, there is no point in renewing Trident unless the countries against which Trident might potentially be used actually believe that the political leader would be prepared to use it. (And not in fact, as some writers suggest, unless the political leader would actually be prepared to do so.) Thus, a political candidate who did not believe in using nuclear weapons might find himself facing a dilemma. The value of transparency would imply that he should inform the electorate candidly that he is not prepared to use nuclear weapons. But if that candidate believed in the logic of deterrence, then concern for political leverage would suggest that he should bluff that he would be prepared to use them. Claiming this convincingly (though falsely) might actually be the best way for him to minimize the likelihood of a case for using nuclear weapons ever arising.

And once again, the representative would be unable to explain to the electorate his real motivation for saying this. He could not say that it is just a bluff intended to increase his political leverage; as soon as other countries heard such a statement this would render the bluff toothless (and probably weaken the representative’s political credibility).

It is therefore possible that this dilemma can vindicate Corbyn’s evasions. Perhaps Corbyn was not avoiding the question as a result of lacking a clear view on the matter, or because he feared that transparency about his beliefs might lose him votes. Rather, he may have been trying to navigate between dishonesty and a myopic approach to international politics that would completely defang the renewal of Trident.

If this tension between transparency and leverage indeed held sway during the last election, then some of the accusations directed at the candidates during this time were unfounded. They were also inherently difficult for the candidates to defend against, since explaining their reasoning would in the same breath have nullified that reasoning. Of course, it is also quite possible that the candidates responded in the ways they did for other reasons. Perhaps Theresa May really does lack vision on Brexit and would prefer no deal to a bad one, and perhaps Corbyn is genuinely uncertain about whether he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. It is hard to say for sure.

Regardless, the dilemma should be of broad interest to anyone interested in the complexities of political representation – the case of British politics mentioned here is but one example. It should also be borne in mind as a possible reason for some of the weaker moments of political discussion. Yet perhaps such a possibility should not be borne in mind too much. For if this justification were, in some particular instance, to become internationally recognised then that would thereby invalidate the politician’s attempt to bolster his political leverage. Politics is no simple game.

Thomas Tozer is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. 

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