Viscount Palmerston on ministerial accountability

In the absence of a proper work schedule, I’m more inclined to read for pleasure, and at times that takes me in the direction of a  well-written history.   I came across this comment by Lord Palmerston, and was rather taken with what it might tell us about contemporary politics. Palmerston wrote to the Queen, in 1838:

in England the Ministers who are at the heads of the several departments of the State are liable any day and every day to defend themselves in Parliament; in order to do so they must be minutely acquainted with all the details of the business of their offices, and the only way of being constantly armed with such information is to conduct and direct those details themselves.

Palmerston might have seemed at times to be a loose cannon; he often made it up as he went along.  (I can forgive him a lot, for his characterisation of the opponents of public health legislation as ‘the dirty party’.)  By his lights, however, accountability forced ministers to pay attention to detail, and attention to detail called for them to be fully engaged with practice.   During the current crisis, ministers are visibly adrift and out of their depth.  The Prime Minister, notoriously, doesn’t do detail.  His ministers frequently get the details wrong, or make them up – pledges on testing and equipment are illustrative – and they bitterly resent any attempt to call them to account, whether from parliament, committees, politicians or the press.    But of course, things have moved on since Victorian times.

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