Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Democracy, responsibility, and honor

Ralf Dahrendorf, Project Syndicate

Hardly a day goes by on which we do not hear of a government minister somewhere resigning his or her office. In a sense, this is hardly surprising. After all, the twenty-five member states of the European Union alone employ hundreds of ministers between them -- and even more if junior ministers are included. But why do ministers resign? More interestingly still: Why do some not resign although there seem to be compelling reasons for some to do so?

In the absence of empirical research, generalizations must be guesswork. Ministers frequently resign because they find themselves involved in scandals, often connected in recent times with financing political parties. In Italy, one encounters several ghosts of such past misdeeds.

Sometimes ministers resign for what they call "personal reasons." Such reasons may conceal more compelling factors, as the recent resignation of American CIA Director George Tenet suggests. But Tony Blair lost one of his best and most loyal cabinet friends, Alan Milburn, because he genuinely wanted to spend more time with his family.

Blair also lost his ministers of foreign affairs and of development assistance, Robin Cook and Clare Short, respectively. In their case, it was a serious policy disagreement -- over the Iraq war -- that made them go, and Cook certainly remains a politician-in-waiting.

Yet Geoff Hoon, Prime Minister Blair's defense minister, as well as his American counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, remain in office. Neither, to be sure, is clearly involved in a manifest scandal, nor do they disagree with the policies set by their leaders.

On the contrary, they not only support these policies but stubbornly defend even their aberrations, like the mistreatment of prisoners of war. These ministers institute investigations, they move generals sideways or even into premature retirement, they haul perpetrators before military tribunals; but they apparently see no reason to respond to those members of Congress or Parliament, let alone of the public, who wonder whether it is not time for the ministers themselves to go.

The case of crimes in Iraq is particularly dramatic, but less obvious cases make the same point. The German minister of transport, for example, presided over a catastrophic and costly failure of a road toll system that he had proudly announced. But even he may stay in office to try again, having blamed others -- in this case private companies -- for the debacle. If something unacceptable happens without a minister's direct involvement, he or she can get away with it, or so it seems, by pointing a finger at the bureaucrats or contractors who are responsible for implementing an approved policy.

Was it always thus? One would like to think not. In any case, two ethical concepts come to mind, neither of which is much in vogue these days when talking about government: responsibility and honor. Both values are, or at least used to be, part of the ethics of governance.

Responsibility concerns the fact that ministers are accountable for everything that happens within their sphere. In fact, they alone are accountable in the strict sense. In parliamentary systems, they can and must appear before the elected representatives of the people and explain what happened.

Because they alone are directly accountable, it is not enough for a minister to point to and name the miscreants in any particular case. Civil servants cannot defend themselves in the same way; they have to be defended by their ministers. If something of such severity has happened that a minister finds it impossible to defend them, they may have to pay the penalty, but the minister still must assume responsibility.

It is proper to assume that Secretary Rumsfeld did not condone, let alone order, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. There may be the vexing question of whether instructions or reports passed over his desk that contained relevant information. But, either way, the minister is ultimately and uniquely responsible for what happened under his command. He cannot escape this responsibility even if the perpetrators are identified and prosecuted.

This is where the second ethical concept, honor, comes into play. This may seem an old-fashioned term. What it says in Rumsfeld's case is that there may be no legal or constitutional obligation for a responsible minister to resign over the Iraqi abuse scandal; but once upon a time it would have been regarded as a matter of honor that he does resign.

Such a step not only demonstrates that the minister in question is fully aware of the burden of his responsibility, but also that he puts the integrity of democratic institutions above his personal interest, let alone the electoral prospects of those whom he served.

Democracy is a precious but also a precarious set of values. If we want to persuade others to subscribe to it, we do well to demonstrate that we not only believe in elections and majorities but also in the virtues of responsibility and honor.

The writer is a former Rector of the London School of Economics, and a former Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford.