A good week for democracy

I have good news for the British people today. There are signs of real hope that our politics is about to be transformed.

First of all, for all of you who are lucky enough to be living away from Britain at the moment, I apologise for mentioning what will seem to you as merely a little local difficulty.

You have probably been concerned with much bigger things than our Members of Parliament and their expenses. I have said it before but if you are in prison or house arrest for your political beliefs in Burma, Zimbabwe, China, North Korea, and many other places then you will not be moved by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries saying yesterday that there was “too much pressure” on British politicians.

At best you will be thinking how amazing that elected members of what has always been known as “the Mother of Parliaments” could really have used tax payers money to buy a floating island for a duck pond, to clear a moat around their stately home, improve the drainage on their tennis court or maintain their swimming pool. Others make complicated fiddles between their two homes, so that they can get their mortgage interest paid on one and then, when it suits them, avoid capital gains tax on the other.

In Britain daylight has penetrated, at last, into the privileged lives of our Members of Parliament. Britain has caught many of them looking to much like bloated pigs.

Nadine Dorries said yesterday on her personal blog that “the atmosphere in Westminster is unbearable. People are constantly checking if others are OK. Everyone fears a suicide.”

Already some of the culprits have been ordered by their leaders to stand down but others have made things worse by trying to justify their actions.

They were only following the rules, they say. Rules that they voted not to change only a year ago. They have to have large restaurant bills because they work long hours. They need to make expenses claims on a third house because their family lives there. They can’t help being rich and having large estates to maintain.

As if these excuses were not rich enough, today we read that retiring Conservative MP, Anthony Steen (pictured above) has been found out spending £90,000 on his second home for things like lobbing trees on his land. He has turned on his critics and accused them of ” jealousy.” He blames the Freedom of Information Act for letting the public have a right to interfere with his private life.

Why are we jealous? Well, he tells us “I’ve got a very very large house.”

One of our national newspapers has got hold of all our MPs expenses claims which have outraged the nation with their extravagance and also for the insight into the lives of our elected representatives. In short, people think that they have been taken for mugs.

In industry, these things would just lead to dismissal of course but our Parliament is not like that. It has a long tradition of governing itself, making its own rules and, of course, keeping its expenses private.

The Freedom of Information Act, which gives the public a right to know about public bodies, was introduced by the Labour government and came into effect in 2005. Since then, politicians have been back-pedaling like mad whenever they felt that their interests were being challenged.

This is where the hope comes in. This little matter of politicians’ expenses has opened up a major debate about the nation’s constitution.

It probably started with the recession.

The economics is beyond most of us but even my untutored brain has picked up that it all started with high financiers in the United States and then spread elsewhere exposing our major financial institutions and the inadequacies of the people who were running them.

If we don’t know why it started, we soon got to see what kind of people we were dealing with in these senior jobs in finance.

Famously, in Britain, we had the case of (Sir) Fred Goodwin, the failed head of the Royal Bank of Scotland who led his bank to disaster and to being saved by public funding, out of which he will now claim, at the age of 50, an annual pension of nearly £800, 000 a year.

Maybe this was a turning point in the nation’s mood. Fred got some bricks through his windows and he even got taken off the waiting list for the golf club at St. Andrews.

In the recession, people started to worry about their own finances. Could they afford their mortgage? Would they lose their job? How would they pay their weekly food bills?

It was when the nation was thinking like this that these stories about the MPs and their altogether different priorities came to light.

And it was when the national mood was anxious that these men and women started to bleat about the unfairness of being criticised.

What has really happened of course is that the Emperor’s Clothes have been seen for what they were. Nothing.

Our Members of Parliament have been stripped naked. No more do they seem like our hard-working, principled, representatives. The inheritors of a grand and noble tradition which has run in parallel with the history of this country as a nation of ever increasing freedom.

For too long, too many of them, have been milking the system. Most of them, undoubtedly are innocent of anything more heinous than carelessness and, probably, a lack of intelligence, but the role of the Member of Parliament has been exposed for what it is. Unless, they are in the Government, or on the front bench of the leading opposition parties, MPs are merely cannon fodder for their political leaders, told how to vote and often what to say. They are busy doing nothing most of the time: looking important, naturally, signing letters, visiting their constituencies and their friends in the local party offices. Very few of them could be accused of having anything original to say or of having any impact on the life of the country.

Whatever we decide are the rights and wrongs of politicans’ finances, it is now a fact that Parliament will have to change.

That is the good news.

Of course, mostly, the change will have to come from the politicians themselves. That is the bad news.

A public body will police their receipts and that is excellent but when they go back to their constituencies this weekend to get ready for the European and County Council elections, they will be thinking, well the clever ones will, that it is time to change the Houses of Parliament from top to bottom.

(Sir) Fred Goodison and Anthony Steen MP, to name but two, have shown us that we no longer want our lives to be governed by self-aggrandizing, pocket-lining men and women of limited ability.

No longer should there be any dithering about the second chamber. It is time to abolish the House of Lords and to replace it with an elected Senate.

It is time to make MPs more accountable to us the voters. Their selection for election should be democratized, maybe by letting candidates stand for Primaries, as in America, where the electorate decides which candidates will actually stand at the General Election.

It is also time to change the archaic system of the “Whips.” Where the party leadership whips the backbenchers into line and makes them vote the way the leader requires. If we elect a representative to Parliament, he or she should be able to vote as they wish. They should be telling their electorate what they believe in and then they should be accountable for those beliefs.

Britain didn’t want to go to war in Iraq. I walked in a crowd of over a million through London hoping to make this point. Parliament let us down and the war went ahead. No wonder people became cynical about politicians.

So these breath-takingly greedy politicians have done us all a favour. The result of this row should be more democracy. If we can make it work in Britain then, maybe, we could show all the World that democracy really is a system worth fighting for.

2 Comments

  1. I disagree entirely.

    These were allowances, not expenses – and all that is happening is that there is a media-led frenzy that diverts us away from the real issues.

    We possibly have too few MPs, and we definitely pay them too little – and we need to get rid of ‘career politicians’. But if we don’t provide accommodation for out-of-towners (not all in the same place, that would be a security nightmare), we need to have a sensible arrangement. I don’t like the idea of paying for second homes (although maybe the interest on a second mortgage can be justified) but nobody had, at that time, put up an alternative.

    And as for the pious arrogance of the guy who released the information: it was going to be public anyway. He was simply jumping the gun (and I’d guess he was well paid for it.

    I think this whole shambles shows how little we think about public service and, as a result, we get the politicians we deserve.

  2. We sound like I would hope, one day, parliamentary backbenchers will sound Claudio.

    A good old-fashioned total disagreement.

    Sadly though, I don’t actually think we are that far apart.

    I agree with you that we should pay MPs an appropriate wage which would certainly help sort out this allowances fiasco and I agree that mortgage interest payments could be justified as long as any later profit from the resale would be given back to the public purse.

    The Telegraph too, I agree, is only publishing what would have become public knowledge soon anyway. Though I do hand it to them for a brilliant press campaign.

    I think, like you, that we have got the politicians we deserve and, consequently, we should smarten up our ideas about what we want out of our democracy. By doing that I hope we will get a better calibre of politician.

    Also by the way, if this has all come about as the result of media frenzy, then we have also got the press that we deserve too because nobody has forced us to read these stories or respond to them how we have.

    It is good to have you back, by the way, especially with this fire in your belly.

    Thanks for the comment.

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