Unravelling the covid state

Think tank: Civitas

Author(s): Dr Jim McConalogue

December 16, 2021

This report from UK think tank Civitas looks if we are moving parliamentary democracy to the regulatory state.

At the forefront of Britain’s response to Covid-19 is the emergence of a new phase in the growth of the regulatory state. Many of the features of our pandemic response reflected the ongoing transformation of the state. The post-war state was defined by a machine capable of strategic planning and mobilising resources to meet achievable goals. But, over 40 years of reform have put us on a path towards the regulatory state, in which, for example, crucial decision-making is delegated to arm’s-length bodies (ALBs). The state’s ability to coordinate executive policy has been comprehensively outsourced. But, in light of the pandemic response, this report suggests we need a state that is prepared to exercise authority, mobilise resources and be accountable for its decisions.

The UK has created a web of government networks in the necessary defence against the ravages of a disease about which so little is still known, but also unprecedented forms of governance which have been able to supplant regular representative democratic features with those of more technocratic models. While many would rightly expect the British model, and indeed the Westminster model of governance, to survive and thrive – as it has during past world wars and challenges – we are still faced with an unfortunate outcome in which elaborate adviser-led networks are being given an even stronger place in policy-making, to the extent that representative elements of our democracy are replaced with deeper technocratic and regulatory purposes. One constructive guiding theme of the government’s recovery plan is to ‘build back better’ after the worst of the pandemic has subsided. This policy should apply as much as to rebuilding our failed structures of governance as to the reform of our public health and financial institutions, through to reigniting the growth potential in the economy. To return from a flawed regulatory state model – in which laws are routinely promulgated by ministerial decree, but no measurable impact is made of them – the constitution will require a commitment to more robust democratic standards.

Those standards include:

  • Transparency of decision-making.
  • Openness in government.
  • Accountability to parliament and society.
  • Making law, where necessary, proportionate, justified and appropriate.
  • Robust scrutiny for all public-serving bodies.
  • Judging judges: learning to doubt arm’s-length bodies.