Sir Gus: Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

“I have to admit that it’s not something I’m often asked about down the pub” -  Sir Gus O’Donnell

As noted in today’s post by my learned colleague [1] Patrick Graham, Sir Gus O’Donnell gave a speech on the Cabinet Manual last night at a Constitution Unit seminar held at the Institute for Government. [2]

The speech was nothing new. As someone in the audience noted, Sir Gus spent most of his talk talking in negatives. The Manual was not a written constitution. It was not law. It was not new. Etcetera.

But it sparked in me some thoughts about the nature of conventions.[3] Sir Gus was being slightly disingenuous: there are aspects of the Manual which are new. There were at least two: the extension of the caretaker or purdah principles into the post-election period, and with more substantive criteria (NZ did something similar in 1984 following a constitutional crisis emerged over transition). Ditto with the provision of civil service support during a hung parliament to all parties. These are examples of instant convention: new norms formulated to deal with a new situation.

Before making the kneejerk response—that’s undemocratic!—it’s worth noting Geoffrey Marshall, for a long time the authority on constitutional conventions, did say that one source of convention was simply derivation from some acknowledged principle of government. And this is not so far removed from what common law judges have been doing for centuries. That is, they have extended ‘imminent principles’ in the law to new and unforeseen circumstances. They use former cases—precedents—often to justify their rulings. This was fine in the past, but this is now regarded as problematic (more bluntly: flapdoodle).

This is because there are now two new conditions underlying modern Western society. One is popular democracy, and the sense that law only has its authority because of ratification by ‘the people’. But more important is the overwhelming presence of the state [5] and the popular assumption of a crude form of positivism [6], which identifies ‘law’ in terms of who authorises it, i.e., the political authority of the state, or more specifically, the legislature. This makes precedent and common law decision-making problematic, because this is essentially judge-made law. It clashes with our idea of democracy and only state-issued law being ‘law’.

A recent book by Nils Jansen [7] makes a similar point. He notes that some legal codifications have become themselves ‘law’ (example: the American Law Institute’s Restatements), and have done so despite the fact that they have never been ‘ratified’ by the legislature. The (key) reasons are that such codifications met an urgent need; and the legal community came to accept it. Jansen’s point is: we presume that the state (and perhaps more specifically the legislature) is the only legitimate authority in the field of ‘law’; but historically this has never been so. There are other ‘legitimising’ communities.

This brings us back to the Manual. Am I saying the Manual is law? I am not. I’m just drawing attention to parallel debates elsewhere. Some people have been irritated by the sheer impudence of Sir Gus and the Cabinet Office—how dare he suggest the executive might have a view of the norms governing us, or that he might change pre-existing practices! What I am saying is that the legislature (and the judiciary) are not the only sources for rules and norms which we find obligatory to follow. This has ‘always been so’: it is just that our views of what constitutes law and/ or obligatory norms over time have become radically impoverished. We need to expand our understanding of how in practice we follow rules.

Competition time! A large cappuccino with whipped cream [8] to the person who can come up with the best question to ask Sir Gus down the pub.[9] Answers below, please.

[1] legalese for ‘he done studied him some law’

[2] They have the best canapes there. As my esteemed colleague says: “I go for the talks, but I stay for the scallops.”

[3] you have to imagine me posing like Rodin’s the thinker. It’s difficult. I do slouch a lot.

[4] I don’t mean this in a state-is-evil libertarian manner—I mean this in an anthropological kind of way. I mean, the state, and its insistence on representing the nation, is everywhere: on our money, on TV, in our speech—it infests the frames we use to understand the world. It’s difficult to imagine a life without the (nation-)state.

[6] I have read HLA Hart. And even Waluchow’s inclusive legal positivism. Go away. That’s why I said a crude form of positivism.

[7] great book btw. It’s a legal bodice-ripper. Or a judicial Bridget Jones.

[8] I’m cheap. Sue me. This or the functional, edible equivalent. Eg., some people might want a skinny latte, a pint, fruit tea etc.

[9] Is that grammatically correct? That’s what Sir Gus said, but this latest batch of civil servants are pretty illiterate (so sayeth the Telegraph–I couldn’t possibly comment). Perhaps it’s an acceptable dialect variant?

6 Responses to Sir Gus: Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before

  1. simonkaye says:

    I would ask Sir G.O.D. whether he really considers failures of outcome to be possible evidence of procedural success, with reference to his appearance before the Public Administration Committee last year…

    Mine’s a guinness.

  2. bmoussavi says:

    “According to Andrew Rawnsley, you felt compelled to confront Gordon Brown about his maniacal behaviour towards No. 10 staff. If this is true, was it the bravest thing you’ve ever done?”

    I know this is far less intellectual than Simon’s question, but this is the pub we are talking about.

  3. Dani Kaye says:

    Magnificent item. Ask him all the questions and demand that no negatives be contained in the replies.

  4. bymyong says:

    Gah. I’ve just realised you have to have some kind of account to make replies on this blog. Idiotic. Well, happy to be emailed.

  5. Patrick Graham says:

    God, can I get you a drink?

  6. Metropolitan villager says:

    I like this!

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