Threats And Opportunities In The Westminster Meltdown – Column 16.5.09


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 16.5.09

ON TUESDAY MORNING, I am due to climb on a train and head  south, to chair a meeting at the Houses of Parliament.  The aim is to debate ten years of the Scottish Parliament, and to ask whether Westminster, with its thousand years of history, could possibly have anything to learn from the new institution at Holyrood; and I can’t help thinking, as I book my journey, just how different the mood of that meeting is likely to be, following the events of the last few weeks.  Back in February or March, when the debate was first planned, it would probably have been scantily attended by a few constitutional enthuasiasts, and treated with the usual mixture of scorn and denial by most people in the Westminster village.

But now, the small room that was reserved for the meeting is already overbooked; and it seems that the atmosphere is likely to smack less of jovial indifference, and more of bewildered  concern.  In one sense, of course, the expenses storm that has engulfed Westminster in the last fortnight is a minor story; the sums of money involved are tiny, compared with the life-sapping trillions now being drained from the pockets of blameless taxpayers thanks to the errors and misdeeds of the great lords of finance.

When the conduct of MP’s is measured against their function, though – and their special status as elected representatives of the people – it seems simply and bitterly intolerable.  At a time when we need our representatives to be on our side, batting for the majority in Britain who still get by on an average household income of less than £30,000 a year, all we can see is that so many of them have gone over to the others, the six-figure people: the ones who who see £63,000 a year as intolerably low pay, and who think of  the 90% or more who live on less as – well, members of a different species, living by different rules.  The level of public anger is, I think, unprecedented in recent political history; and although some at Westminster seem to believe that they can simply push through a few reforms and carry on, wiser heads are beginning to grasp that a whole phase of political history is coming to an end, as our parliamentary system faces what may be its biggest crisis of legitimacy since the great democratic reforms of the 19th century.

So what are the consequences likely to be, as we look out towards the next British general election?  First, as Gordon Brown was suggesting in Derbyshire on Thursday – and as Lord Tebbit was actively urging, earlier in the week – there may well be a volatile and sometimes alarming flight away from the mainstream UK political parties.  The truth is that our main political parties are fast becoming the “rotten boroughs” of our time, empty shells that monopolise all the political power-structures of the nation for a tiny population of unrepresentative careerists, despite the absence of anything resembling mass membership or support.  At the European elections, now less than three weeks away, these parties are likely to receive the shock of their lives, as voters desert in their scores of thousands for parties like UKIP and the BNP on the right, and for single-issue campaigns and candidates on the left; and this time around, they would be crazy to imagine that the situation will simply return to “normal”, once the electorate has got the protest out of its system.

Every threat also represents an opportunity, though; and there’s no doubt that this crisis could eventually open up space for a new generation of parties and movements far more fit to provide a living link between 21st century politicians and people.  It’s also possible – as I hope to find on Tuesday – that the current shock being sustained by Westminster may open up new opportunities for dialogue within Britain’s new constitutional system, as it has emerged since 1997.  David Cameron is already talking about ending Westminster’s culture of denial in relation to devolved institutions, and of inviting both UK and Scottish ministers to engage more fully with committees in the other parliament; and if that new and more open attitude becomes prevalent, in a chastened post-shock Westminster, then we could be looking at a rapid maturing of Britain’s new quasi-federal system of government, whatever its eventual destination.

And finally, it seem to me that this shock is bound, in the end, to generate debate about a new and far more rigorous approach to the ethics of power in Britain.  Ever since the early 1980’s, when the rise of Thatcherism fired the starting-gun for a generation of greed-is-good thinking, there has been a tendency to admire the rich simply for being rich, to grant them additional power and influence in virtue of their wealth, and to turn a blind eye to the means by which they get their loot.

Now, though, that link between wealth and prestige, wealth and talent, wealth and respectability, has been broken in the public mind, at least for a decade or two.   Robert Burns once famously asked whether there was anyone who would hang his head because of honest poverty; and the answer, for three decades at Westminster, was apparently “yes” – so much so that MP’s were prepared to cheat the taxpayer, in order to raise their financial and social status.

But now, shame suddenly lies elsewhere, in the litany of pathetic and trashy materialism exposed by the Daily Telegraph.   And as for fulfilment and respect – well, that might at last be on the move too: away from what our grandparents would have called filthy lucre, and towards what Shakespeare summed up as “honour, love, obedience, troops of  friends” – those things that make life meaningful and old age bearable, and that money, in the end, just cannot buy.


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