“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
W.B. Yeats (The Second Coming, 1921)
During August this commentary has consciously - but with some difficulty - avoided the political arena, choosing to focus on whether young people are getting the life skills they need, the perilous state of the Greenland ice cap and how it will drive forced migration, and the driving motives behind Elizabeth Warren, contender for the Democratic crown in the United States.
However, we cannot but join the fray on whether Parliament is being short-changed by Boris Johnson’s Government, and we conclude that it is not. After three years with a desperately weak executive, we have been - and some would like it to continue - experiencing parliamentary anarchy. As the Prime Minister seeks to redress the balance between the executive and parliament, it’s worth noting that getting governance right is something that listed businesses also have to wrestle with.
So in this commentary we look at the differing roles of the electorate, the elected, and the executive - in both business and government - and how they must learn to respect one another, in the interest of continued good progress.
A key feature of all well-run businesses is setting the board agenda. The chief executive consults with the chairman in crafting it, seeking support from his/her executive colleagues; while non-executive input is welcomed and views are carefully taken into account, taking particular notice of that director’s experience and expertise. They do not instruct the way the company is run.
Parliament seems to have forgotten this in its zest to originate legislation, and needs to re-learn the disciplines of good government. In this case,
- they have already approved Brexit by enacting Article 50;
- the Party in Government has gone through due process in replacing its executive lead;
- constitutional methods continue to be available to elected representatives, in terms of votes of confidence and approval of the Queen’s Speech in October.
They need to wake up and smell the coffee, and a slightly prolonged Party Conference suspension will enable them to do just that.
While they’re doing so, it might be worth taking soundings as to what ordinary people feel about parliamentary anarchy. My guess is that they don’t like it: they’ve had enough of three years getting nowhere, and they respect the negotiating strategy that Boris is now employing.
At the end of the day, voters matter; and they need to feel that elected representatives are doing what they would do in similar circumstances. On the matter of Brexit, that is to respect the referendum result and to move on to planning our future outside the European Union.
There will be a time for seeking to reconcile the sharp differences held across the United Kingdom, but reconciliation takes place after the event, not before it. There was an intense and very worthwhile period of reconciliation in South Africa once apartheid was abolished, but it could not have taken place before the event. Like restorative justice, reconciliation cannot pre-empt action - it is a binding together after the event. So those 25 bishops who signed their ‘open letter’ should bide their time.
Finally, it’s worth looking further at the business model of governance and seeing where it’s weakest: and that arguably where non-executives feel little sense of accountability to their electorate - the shareowner base.
That’s why we warmly welcome the current BEIS review into shareowner representation, and how it can be more effective; and the Law Commission review into intermediated securities. Capitalism has become far too linked with cronyism. It needs transparency and accountability, and shareowners must understand that their role is not simply to buy and sell when the time appears right, but to take an active interest in their company, and whether its board is acting as they would wish. They do correctly have the right to table shareholder resolutions in General Meetings, and these can change the business model - as is increasingly the case with fossil fuel companies.
I’m a strong believer in individual freedom of the kind expressed by Thomas Jefferson, but anarchy does not protect the freedom of the individual - it undermines it and weakens it. That’s why we need constitution and a basis of law, and we need to allow the executive to steer businesses and the country until such time as their courses may be changed by annual meetings or general elections, respectively.
Gavin Oldham OBE