The self-destruction of the House of Commons
The mock-populist backlash on parliamentary expenses poses a serious threat not only to MPs’ bank balances, but to democracy itself.
Nobody with an ounce of critical spirit will feel much sympathy with the MPs currently ‘revolting’ over the demand by Sir Thomas Legg that they pay back some of the expenses they claimed in recent years. These are the same MPs who singularly failed to revolt over the Iraq War, anti-terror legislation, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act and numerous other anti-democratic, liberty-loathing initiatives launched in parliament in recent years. But when it comes to protecting their bank balances, to preserving their own rights to have a plasma TV or horse-manured garden, they’ve allegedly discovered a bit of that fighting spirit notable by its absence in the robotic House of Commons of the New Labour era.
Yet even if the expenses scandal seems to confirm what many members of the public already thought – that most of our elected representatives are more interested in their pay and perks than in big questions about democracy and the future – that doesn’t mean we should welcome the scandal and its fallout. This mock-populist movement to reprimand MPs, presented as a public uprising, but actually driven more by a cynical media and the inability of MPs themselves to defend parliamentary sovereignty, poses a serious threat to democracy and debate. Indeed, this week’s events confirm that something quite historic is taking place: the self-destruction of the House of Commons, which could well lead to a mass cleanout of politics, the rise of a new generation of apolitical MPs, and the further political disenfranchisement of us, the voters.
The ‘Legg solution’ to the expenses scandal represents something extraordinary: effectively the launch of war by an unelected civil servant on the House of Commons. As cockily as any king in Cromwell’s lifetime, or any lord or lady in the modern era, the balding, bespectacled Legg, never heard of before by anyone outside of the Westminster village, has thrown the inquiry-equivalent of a hand grenade into the elected wing of parliament. Selected to chair the Audit Commission’s inquiry into the past five years of expenses claims made by MPs, Legg has decreed not only that all the dodgy duck-pond money should be paid back, but also that older claims that were within the rules of the day should be paid back, too.
In a move that has startled many an expert in employment law, he retrospectively changed the rules on expenses: MPs should never have claimed more £2,000 a year for cleaning, £1,000 a year for gardening, £750 for a television set, £10,000 for a new kitchen, and so on. This means that all MPs who claimed more than £2,000 a year for cleaning four or five years ago, when it was perfectly legal to do so, will now have to pay back some of that cash; more than £10,000 of the £12,500 that PM Gordon Brown paid back on Monday was for cleaning and gardening. Whatever you might think of the MPs’ expenses system – it seems strange and archaic to many of us, and a poor, topping-up substitute for making the argument that MPs should have a higher wage – Legg’s measures seem extraordinarily punitive, not to mention legally dodgy.
Yet the impact of Legg’s measures will be felt, not only by MPs and their bank managers, but also by the rest of us. Legg, described by the press as a ‘career civil servant’, ‘a slightly distant patrician figure’, a long-standing Westminster bod who reportedly ‘relished’ this opportunity to ‘settle MPs’ accounts’ (1), has set in motion a chain of events that will further elevate auditing over democratic debate and accountancy over politics.
The destructive Legg assault could lead to a mass cleanout of parliament – how many MPs will stand for election again knowing that their finances will be so harshly scrutinised and potentially claimed back on the whim of a civil servant? Many might say that is no great loss and good riddance to bad rubbish. But it will also ensure that those who do stand for parliament in the future – the young, aspiring MPs of tomorrow – will do so on the basis of their good accountancy skills and monetary transparency rather than anything that smells like a political opinion.
For example, this year already we saw Chloe Smith, the Tory described as ‘the future of politics’, elected in Norwich North on a campaign ticket of not being very political but being entirely committed to publishing ‘all the details of my personal expenses, office expenses and donations’ (2). In our era of expenses-obsession, when what an MP spends and how he behaves are more important than what he thinks, believes or argues, we can expect more Chloe Smiths, more new MPs who will define themselves according to the Legg agenda rather than being defined by any deep-rooted political views or public passions – that is, they’ll be well-behaved, uncontroversial, meek, managerial, prefect-like; an accountant’s wet dream, but a democrat’s worst nightmare.
This is the worst thing Legg has done: effectively given licence to the apolitical brigade to fight the next election on the expenses issue; he has sanctioned their use of the trump card of ‘financial honesty’ over ‘bad old politics’. By broadening out the expenses agenda so that virtually every MP is now seen as having sinned against decency, Legg has let loose the dogs of accountancy against what are seen as the grubby, self-interested inhabitants of parliament today. When a current MP stands for re-election, how will his opponents argue against him? By waving his expenses forms. By pointing out that four years ago he claimed £1,230 for gardening, which is £230 more than he should have done according to the Gospel of Legg. By revisiting, again and again, not what that MP thought, said or did on issues such as freedom, economic recession or military ventures abroad, but rather how extravagantly he decorated his kitchen. The Legg agenda has denigrated politics and led to a subtle yet profound form of political disenfranchisement, ensuring that we voters will be denied the opportunity to cast our votes at the next election according to what we think about key political issues, and instead giving us the ‘choice’ between ‘financially transparent’ politicians and ‘financially corrupt’ ones.
It is a searing indictment of our age that an accountant-style civil servant can – with apparent ‘relish’ – lead an assault on the elected wing of parliament. In earlier eras, when the battle of the day was between monarchy and democracy, a king might have stormed parliament and been resisted by that parliament’s members; in more recent times unelected lords frequently tried to slap the wrists of the elected commons and sometimes were put firmly back in the place. Today, in our era of managerial, ‘see-through’ politics, the big battle of our age is between a backroom beancounter and allegedly revolting MPs who think ‘it’s all so unfair’; between a civil servant who says MPs must be always well-behaved and MPs who made their behaviour a key focus of public debate in the first place, but who think Legg is ‘going too far’ (3). The Legg-Commons stand-off is a product of the reduction of politics from questions of liberty, subjectivity and the Good Society to petty issues of auditing, personality and always-impeccable behaviour.
And that is why it is so hard to sympathise with those revolting MPs – because if Legg is effectively destroying the House of Commons then it is only because he has been invited to do so by the Commons itself. The political class pretty much flung open the doors of the Commons and invited Legg, as well as the media, to interrogate and reprimand it. The expenses scandal springs, not from someone like Legg’s singular ‘relish’ to settle MPs’ accounts or even from the media’s undoubted desire to uncover stories about tennis courts and Kit-Kats; more fundamentally it springs from politicians’ own promotion of their personality and behaviour to the forefront of public debate, and from their inability to define what the Commons is for today.
The expenses scandal can be seen as the logical, paralysis-inducing outcome of politicians’ promotion of their own individual decency over political conviction in recent years. Tony Blair rose to power on his self-definition as a ‘pretty straight sort of guy’; New Labour fought the 1997 election largely on an anti-Tory sleaze ticket, promising to make politics cleaner. New quangoes to monitor MPs’ standards, pay and behaviour were established and the media became ever-more obsessed with keeping a tab on MPs’ promise to be morally pure. The end result is the empowerment of civil servants to tell off and punish MPs. Politicians bereft of political vision, who thus sold themselves on the basis of personal honesty rather than political integrity, brought this on themselves. (Indeed, it is a bit rich for New Labourites in particular to complain about Legg’s unelected status, considering New Labour did so much to elevate unelected experts over elected officials – Brown currently oversees ‘the least democratic cabinet since the war’.) (4)
Also, today’s political leaders are utterly incapable of defending the Commons against civil servants precisely because, under their purview, the Commons has become such a hollowed-out, directionless institution. So now, David Cameron threatens to sack Tory MPs who don’t pay back their expenses, Brown tells his Labour MPs to ‘stop revolting’, and Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems says Legg should have gone even further than he did. Lacking any Cromwell-style sense of parliamentary sovereignty, devoid of political vision, and desperate to appear, once again, as ‘pretty straight sort of guys’, our elected leaders indulge in deeply unattractive bouts of Legg-bending self-flagellation. They believe they are placating the anti-politician mob (not realising that this scandal was created by the elite itself), but all they are really doing is making things worse, intensifying the idea that all politicians are corrupt and heightening people’s suspicions of the kitchen-buying jobsworths who rule over us.
The expenses scandal is damaging democracy and limiting voters’ choices. It is bringing to a head some of the worst anti-political trends of recent years. We urgently need to rethink what politics should be about today, and to put the case for re-enfranchising the electorate so that they can exercise their minds and their authority on bigger, more profound issues than who spent how much on what. That is why, next week, spiked will be cutting through the horse manure of contemporary debate and launching ‘Vote for Politics!’ – a campaign to reinvigorate public debate in the run-up to the General Election.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Sir Thomas Legg, the auditor charged with bringing the Commons to book, The Times (London), 10 October 2009
(2) See Norwich North: a by-election that nobody won, by Brendan O’Neill
(3) Revolting MPs say they won’t pay back expenses cash, Mirror, 12 October 2009
(4) See The hangdog dictator in Downing Street, by Brendan O’Neill