Book Review

Government by Moonlight: the hybrid parts of the state

by Patrick Birkinshaw, Ian Harden, Norman Lewis

Unwin Hyman, London, United Kingdom, 1990

ISBN 0-04-445404-X.

Harry Hillman Chartrand ©
: An International Journal of 
Policy and Administration
, 4 (3), July  1991
, 356-358

As Margaret Thatcher sails into the sunset her wake remains visible as a bubbling froth of free market rhetoric and ideology.  But surface signs often obscure and run counter to deeper undercurrents.  The authors, three constitutional lawyers, sound these depths and raise to the surface a development of critical concern to anyone seeking safe landfall for democracy in this post-modern age.  While Lord Keynes is best remembered for his rules governing navigation of the ship of State in the economic ocean, the authors remind us that he also foresaw the growth of semiautonomous bodies associated with the State which, like dolphins swimming ahead, will lead the way towards the public good as they understand it.  In this regard, it should be recalled that Keynes was the father of the Arts Council of Great Britain, a postwar institution funded by the State but operating at arm's length from its political direction.

The authors argue, convincingly, that contrary to orthodox Thatcherism and its North American variants, the ship of State is not returning to some mythic free market port with a crisply defined coastline separating public policy from a mainland of private self-interest.  Rather, in keeping with Keynes's prescience, semiautonomous bodies have become vessels in a public/private convoy used to 'offload' responsibilities accumulated by the ship of State during the rising tide of the postwar Welfare State.  The course of the ship, in fact, remains unchanged.

From the constitution emerging after the English Civil War of the mid-1600s to the republican revolutions of the 18th century, first American and then French, the authors implicitly argue there has been a progressive constitutional cooptation of private interest in pursuit of the public good.  The most evolved examples today are Austria and Germany.  Concentrating on the least evolved or formalized, the `unwritten' constitution of the United Kingdom, the authors demonstrate off-loading ranges far and wide - from accounting standards, financial markets, industrial strategy, land-use planning, labour relations, national defense, professional self-regulation and R&D to art, education, health, housing, voluntarism and welfare.

This restructuring has been necessitated by the inherent complexity of modern life, the limits of rationality resulting from imperfect information and a turbulent policy environment.  This has fueled a perestroika in the UK as fundamental, if not as visible, as that in the Soviet Union.  The authors argue that through bargaining, cooptation and threat of legislation, the State has effectively transferred various public responsibilities to a spectrum of public/private institutions.  It has done so to, reduce costs, increase effectiveness and simplify its policy environment. 

The authors use a body of literature concerning 'corporatism' to define this restructuring in terms of stable bargaining relationships between associations of private interest like the defense industry and the State.  They point out that corporatism is not necessarily incompatible with, but rather potentially complimentary to, traditional geographic-based constituency democracy.  While the author's suggest 'tripartism', i.e. government, management and labour cooperation is passe, an ironic legacy of Thatcherism may be the re-democratization of the union movement - final realization of Sydney and Beatrice Webbs' dream of industrial democracy.

But public authority exercised by private interests raises serious questions of accountability.  There has been, the authors imply, no equivalent glasnost or openness. In my experience, this is certainly the case with arm's length arts councils.  In fact, various factors conspire to obscure the exercise of public authority by private interests.  These include free market rhetoric, failure to develop a body of administrative law comparable to that on the Continent or even in the United States and a self-serving conspiracy of silence between the State and recipients of public authority.  Ministerial accountability, while no longer functional, is a powerful incantation in a parliamentary democracy and has similarly blinded citizens to the changing nature of democracy.

The authors present a range of accountability regimes to make the new public/private partnership transparent to public scrutiny. In this regard, they define 'constitutional' in procedural terms as participation by citizens in open and informed debate about the objectives, policies and procedures of public policymaking.  They call not only for freedom of information but also creation of intermediating institutions to process information into forms accessible to the public.

An extensive and impressive array of empirical UK evidence is marshaled in support of the thesis.  Unfortunately, its very richness and detail, including a plethora of acronyms, makes the book difficult to read - as does the uneven editing of three different authors.  Nonetheless, this is an important book. It hoped that the authors will take the time to refine the concluding chapter into a more accessible form.  It could then be broadcast to the wider public which needs to know the true course of democracy in the troubled seas of the late 20th century.