The public’s ability to trust politicians is a crucial part of any democratic system. If trust is lost, either in an individual, or in the system itself it can have a marked effect not only on the public’s willingness to engage with politics but also on the quality of that engagement. As politicians seek to outdo themselves to gain attention from the public, the question of not only who to trust but also that of upholding values of decency and responsibility has never been more pressing. In an age when it is increasingly easy for politicians to lie about their opponents and try to brazenly cheat the system that is meant to keep them in check, the questions of how strong our institutions are to attack from the unscrupulous only become more vivid in the minds of the public.

These questions and more lie at the heart of John Bowers’ book Downward Spiral. Bowers, a noted barrister and Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford does not pull any punches in his analysis of the decline of standards in public life or who is responsible for that decline. Whilst it might seem perhaps inevitable that Partygate and Boris Johnson’s time in Downing Street loom large over this book, they are not it’s solely concern.

Rightly, Bowers analyses the circumstances that led to Johnson’s ascendency to the premiership and how his own unique brand of governance fits into what came before. In particular, Bowers critique of the handlings of the Bernie Eccleston scandal and the association, especially towards the end of the New Labour period, with the then government and dodgy deals helps to demonstrate how the perception of the public has led it to expecting less of its elected representatives than it should. Bowers’ examination of the MP’s expenses scandal is especially well rendered, with Bowers making a clear case that the erosion of public confidence in Members of Parliament didn’t simply mean that the public themselves ended up trusting MPs less but that it also damaged the way politicians viewed themselves.

Bowers doesn’t deal simply with perceptions however – he also deals with hard facts. Namely the way that the proliferation of particular types of roles in governments (tsars and non-executive directors) have led to individuals being appointed to relatively powerful positions with little accountability to Parliament or to the public at large. 

The farce of Johnson’s ethics tsar Lord Geidt resigning because of Johnson’s own actions is the exception to this, rather than the rule. Often said tsars seem to become immovable fixtures of the architecture of government. Bowers’ detailed examination of the process of government gives the book an authenticity and accuracy that makes it an essential read for anyone interested in how government works. Yet Bowers never bogs down the book in so much detail that it becomes like a legal textbook – rather his interweaving of detail with his thesis that the lack of proper institutional checks and balances and a reliance on the principle that politicians are “good chaps” has left our institutions open to abuse is expertly done. Bowers helps to reinforce this by scoring out of ten the various regulatory sections that he reviews, this gives an immediate certainty to the problems and also a clear means of understanding where and how they are lacking.

What Downward Spiral undeniably demonstrates is that politics in Britain is more often than not dependent on systems which simply do not work if someone happens to be dishonest or see their own interests as more important than those of the country. It is, ultimately, a prophetic call to action for a clear and concise reform of the way we are governed. Bowers suggests that there needs to be greater legal recourse for politicians to follow the rules, to give ACOBA (the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments), for example, some actual power and statutory rather than advisory status. Making ACOBA a body to be respected rather than to merely be the butt of jokes is clearly a necessary step towards making our political system more honest and coherent. 

Reading Downward Spiral it seems clear that Westminster is a rabbit warren of contradicting rules and unenforceable penalties. John Bowers insightful book provides an engagingly frank roadmap to how this can be achieved. Bowers suggests that a breach of it should carry the possibility of the Minister in question being barred from reappointment, and or the loss of part of their pension. Bowers focuses on practical solutions and this is what makes this book such a revelation – there are obvious means for how to fix the problems that have led to the breakdown in public trust in politics and Bowers presents them in a clear, concise, and uncomplicated way.