JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 2.5.09
ONCE UPON A TIME, a friend of mine worked closely for a while with a woman who had, for many years, been the mistress of a Westminster MP. Her life during this time had not been entirely a bed of roses. But there was one group of people for whom she had nothing but praise; they were the staff at the Palace of Westminster, who, she said, were “absolutely brilliant” at keeping wives and mistresses apart, and MPs’ spouses in blissful ignorance of their husbands’ sexual adventures.
Now I don’t know whether Westminster staff still retain this special skill today. But all the same, it’s a story that speaks volumes about the culture of the House of Commons, an institution that famously combines the qualities of a party-political bear-pit with those of a traditional gentlemen’s club, fiercely protective of its members’ privileges and privacy; and whose latest botched attempt to change its archaic approach to such matters has inflicted further serious damage, this week, on Gordon Brown’s failing government.
The idea of parliamentary privilege is not a trivial one, of course. But over the years, that serious protection of MP’s freedom to speak and legislate as they see fit, has become hopelessly confused with the simple defence of MP’s personal interests, often against those to whom they should obviously be accountable. If wives can be lied to about parliamentary love-affairs, then the same culture suggests that tax-payers can legitimately be bamboozled a little over pay and expenses; particularly in an age of extreme income inequality, when many of the elite spokespeople with whom MP’s have to deal are earning sums ten or twenty times greater than any politician’s salary.
And if you finally add to the Westminster mix the old Labour and trade union movement ethic of expenses routinely doled out to those who turn up for meetings – well, you have a pretty lethal brew. The current Mr. Speaker, for example, comes from a Labour movement generation who would have seen failure to pocket full expenses, whether you really need them or not, as a breach of solidarity, and a form of undercutting of members who genuinely need the cash. Hence the look of slight confusion that tends to descend on MP’s accused of abusing the expenses system. Routinely, they say that they have not broken the rules, and that they were only following normal practice; what they mean is that the system conspired to stuff their pockets with gold on dodgy pretexts, and they did nothing to resist it.
So it’s perhaps hardly surprising that, in an age of ever-declining deference, and ever-increasing transparency, the old Westminster system has finally become unsustainable. For almost a generation, the general ideological climate has in any case been hostile to politicians, regarding them as little but a time-wasting obstacle to the legitimate pursuit of business; in Scotland, for example, at the time of the setting-up of the new Parliament, the presence of such strong hostile arguments had the salutary effect of encouraging the parliament to institute a tough and highly transparent expenses regime, which has kept almost all MSP’s in the clear over the past decade.
At Westminster, though – well, Gordon Brown may be using YouTube now, to tell us of the urgent need for change. But the truth is that for the past dozen years, the government in which he played a leading role did almost nothing to challenge the mess of dodgy practice into which the Westminster expenses regime was declining. And now, we are landed with a situation in which evidently sane members of the public are writing letters to the newspapers, proposing that the role of MP should be put out to tender, every five years, like any other contract for public service; and should simply be awarded to the lowest bidder.
Of course, that would mark a reversion to the old pre-democratic British system, in which the task of parliamentary representation was almost always undertaken by those with private means, who could fulfil the task at a minimum cost to the public. The truth is that if we want any semblance of democracy, and any chance of political representation for ordinary working people, then we must pay MP’s a decent whack, with sufficient expenses and office provision; to suggest otherwise is as reactionary and snobbish as it is foolish and dangerous.
But if those who instinctively dislike democracy are happy to foster hostile stories about the poltical gravy-train – and happier still to distract attention by doing so at a time when the failed elites of Britain’s financial sector are making off with vastly greater sums – those within the political system who have presided over this debacle are still much to blame. By allowing the system to slide towards corruption and sleaze, they have helped to bring the whole idea of representative democracy into disrepute. By failing to learn from other institutions faced with the demands of a less deferential age, they have contrived to make the Westminster parliament look more arrogant and out of touch than ever.
And by failing to address the colossal economic inequalities in our society, they have stranded our representatives half-way between an economic elite who see them as poor relations who can be corrupted for a pittance, and ordinary voters who see their six-figure salary-and-allowance packages as a small fortune. Gross economic inequality, we are now told, lies at the root of many social ills, from crime and mental illness to teenage pregnancy. But it also eats the soul of democracy; and until some government acquires the wisdom to tackle that truth, no amount of belated reform is likely to heal the broken relationship between a disappointed people, and the elected representatives whose protection they sorely need, but whom they feel they can no longer trust.