Beware the vultures circling the Commons
With cops baying for MPs’ blood and the Queen expressing her distaste, Britain’s undemocratic forces are milking the expenses scandal.
There are many arguments that can be made against Britain’s Houses of Parliament, primarily that they are not, and never have been, democratic enough.
One longstanding criticism of parliament is that it is a democratic façade for British state power, resting on the ultimate authority of a body of armed men. And with the unelected House of Lords attached, there are so many undemocratic checks on the decision-making powers of the elected Commons that the things we vote for can easily be thwarted by lords and priests. More recently, parliament has become even more dislocated from the people, and in the process more exposed as a collection of uninspiring officials who do things, not in the collective interest, but in the interests of security and stability: parliament today is more likely to ban smoking or undermine civil liberties than have a fiery debate about the economy or the future. We need a far more democratic parliament.
And yet, precisely the opposite conclusion has been drawn from the expenses scandal. As more and more MPs are exposed for having used the House of Commons expenses system to buy everything from plasma TVs to horse manure, the argument put forward by scandal-mongering journalists and various unelected officials is that the Commons, the elected part of parliament, has been too free to set its own agenda, too independent, too unchecked by external authorities. What we need, apparently, is more police, media and monarchical intervention in the workings of the Commons in order to ensure that MPs behave responsibly and cleanly.
This represents a grave assault on the democratic ideal. Whatever one thinks of the House of Commons, especially in its current incarnation as a chamber stuffed with petty and illiberal members, it ought to be defended against the opportunistic and aristocratic forces of anti-democracy that are feasting on the expenses scandal.
As the scandal continues to grip Britain, the vultures of undemocracy have been circling around the carcass of the shaken Commons, hoping to pick off some morsels of moral authority and renewed purpose for their own decrepit institutions. Sniffing an opportunity to regain some lost highground, and increase their influence in public life, some of the most scandal-ridden and morally dubious institutions in British society are shamelessly using the expenses scandal to boost their standing.
The police rushed to get involved. Shortly after the Daily Telegraph kickstarted the scandal, by publishing the details of MPs’ expenses that it bought from an internal leaker, police officers poked their truncheons in. Scotland Yard has announced that it is keen to investigate some MPs over their expenses and has had ‘very helpful talks’ with the Director of Public Prosecutions on how to proceed. Richard Brunstrom, the chief constable of North Wales, has asked the Telegraph to provide him with ‘any evidence of law-breaking involving MPs in North Wales’. As if preparing for war, Brunstrom warned: ‘There is going to be blood.’ (1)
Who do these people think they are? It is intolerable for the police to intervene in parliamentary affairs in this way. This is the stuff of a banana republic. Of course, individual MPs have been arrested in the past, and if an MP was caught breaking into a shop today, or smashing someone across the head, he should be arrested like anyone else. But a police investigation into parliamentary affairs themselves, into a system of expenses and allowances created by our elected representatives, is a disgrace. It would elevate the unelected, authoritarian power of the armed wing of the state over the authority of the only elected part of the machinery of British government – the Commons – and ultimately over the people.
It is striking that, just months after the fallout from the Damian Green affair, when Metropolitan Police officers were criticised by many for arresting the Tory shadow immigration minister and threatening him with life imprisonment for accepting leaked documents from a civil servant, once again the police are openly smelling the ‘blood’ of MPs (2). It is a testament to the Commons’ utter failure to justify itself, or to defend parliamentary integrity and the superiority of elected power, that the police can return so soon.
For the police, this is clearly an exercise in moral recuperation: following widespread criticism of their actions during the G20 protests and the Green incident, the Met and other police forces are keen to exploit for their own ends the moral outrage against MPs. As Brunstrom boasted: ‘[I am] a public servant who has always acted honourably throughout my 30 years of police service.’ (3) For the rest of us, however, the creeping interventionism of the cops into parliamentary affairs can only be a depressing reminder of the current weakness of the democratic institution and of the continual PR-driven meddling of armed forces in affairs that do not concern them.
In a blast from the past, monarchists have also leapt upon the expenses scandal in an attempt to rehabilitate the House of Windsor and the power of the undemocratic sovereign of the British system: the monarch. ‘The Queen should dissolve parliament’, demands one journalist (4). A former adviser to John Major also says the Queen should take action: ‘[She] should invite all the party leaders to Buckingham Palace and tell them that she is using her constitutional powers to call an election.’ (5) It has been widely reported that in her most recent audience with Gordon Brown – an insulting weekly institution that should be scrapped – the Queen expressed her ‘distaste’ for the behaviour of MPs.
In a long pro-monarchy piece in the Telegraph, Simon Heffer says the Queen should step in and ‘steady the ship’ of British politics. Using that tactic beloved of the monarchist lobby – scaremongering about the potential instability and violence that might spring from electoral politics – Heffer says the non-partisan, ‘umpire’ Queen is needed now more than ever: ‘No one has yet marched on parliament; an extremist party has not yet triumphed at the polls; the public has not yet boycotted elections to an extent where their outcome is rendered invalid. But who is to say those things will not happen, with potentially shocking consequences…? The Queen [has] the authority to act.’ (6)
It says a lot about the disorientation of today’s political class when, more than 350 years after parliamentary forces beheaded Charles I and temporarily abolished the monarchy, there can be a serious discussion about using the monarchy to put the Commons in order. On 8 June it will be the 200th anniversary of the death of Tom Paine, the British revolutionary pamphleteer, who must now be spinning in his grave. In his pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, Paine demolished the same braindead arguments now being made by Heffer and others for allowing an above-the-fray Queen to put politics in order:
‘There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of the monarchy; it first excludes a man from the means of information, yet empowers him to act in cases where the highest judgement is required. The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless.’ (7)
If recent events have exposed today’s MPs as uninspiring jobsworths, then the calls on the Queen to intervene have exposed what the monarchy represents in British politics: institutionalised distrust of the people. The investment of sovereign power in the monarch has long been a profound snub to the idea of popular democracy; the monarch exists as an institutional guard against the alleged stupidity of the people and our elected representatives, so that he or she always embodies the state’s power to step in if we make the ‘wrong decisions’.
In the current praise and hope being heaped on the Queen because she is non-partisan, unelected and aloof, we can also see the deeply anti-political sentiments that are driving the expenses obsession, where partisanship, party interests and involvement in grubby everyday affairs and debate – the very stuff of politics – come to be demonised. It is the same sentiment that encouraged the media to cheer Queen Esther – that’s Esther Rantzen, the populist TV presenter and scaremonger-in-chief on all matters relating to children – when she announced that she might stand against one scandal-ridden MP. Again, instead of recognising that the real problem in the Commons today is that the political parties have become hollowed-out shells bereft of vision or principle, the very idea of having political parties becomes problematised. What we need instead, apparently, is aloof individuals or non-party independents to ‘clean up politics’.
But perhaps the most worrying development that has been copperfastened by the expenses scandal is the growing and now problematic power and influence of the media. The scandal confirms that the media have become the voice, not of the public interest, as they claim, but of public cynicism. As a result of the weakness of the political class, the media are much freer to frame debates and set the agenda today.
The media have spearheaded, virtually unchallenged, the discussion about expenses. In lieu of any meaningful political vision from the parties, or of any display of integrity or authority by the Commons, the media have successfully shaped how this scandal is seen and understood. Things that in the past would not have been seen as terribly scandalous – certainly in comparison with the Profumo affair or Watergate – have been held up by the media as a ‘crisis in politics without precedent in our lifetimes’ (8). Sections of the media continually use the term ‘constitutional crisis’ to describe the scandal, even though it clearly isn’t that.
The media’s authority over public debate was made clear during yesterday’s appearance by the Speaker in the Commons. Yes, the Speaker was roundly criticised by some MPs, and yes this is a rare event; but there was no justification for labelling it a ‘revolt’ or a ‘rebellion’, the ‘like of which we haven’t seen in 200 years’ (9). In truth, as of yesterday evening only 18 MPs had signed the motion calling for the Speaker to step down. Yet such is the media’s authority-by-default in British politics that they can now determine how affairs are conceptualised and how they play out. If, as expected, the increasingly ridiculous Speaker steps down this afternoon, it will largely be because of the media campaign against him after he criticised journalists’ behaviour.
This is not a call for curbing media activity. The media should be free to publish and argue whatever they please. Yet it is a worrying snapshot of the state of mainstream politics when the media can assume such a key, decisive role – and such a frequently destructive one. The expenses scandal exposes a media more interested in chasing supermarket receipts or poking around in moats than generating meaningful debate.
In many ways, the Commons has only itself to blame for this circling of parliament by various institutions that have always been suspicious of elected power. MPs themselves did much to generate today’s obsession with sleaze and scandal, and their own political and institutional fragility acts as an invitation to the forces of anti-democracy to have a go. Yet whatever state the Commons is in, it remains infinitely more democratic than the police, the monarchy or the media. We need to think seriously about the future of British politics, and we might start by demanding the abolition of the monarchy, the abolition of the House of Lords, the complete expulsion of the police from parliamentary affairs, the injection of some serious ideas into media debate, and a full-on discussion about how to make parliament more – not less – democratic, political, partisan, inspiring and independent.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. 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).)
Previously on spiked
After the MPs expenses scandal, Mick Hume asked what price democracy?. He also argued that scandal dominates debate while governments achieve nothing. Tim Black explained why paying politicians is good for democracy. Matthias Heitmann suggested the Paul Wolfowitz affair reveals how fear of corruption undermines political life. James Heartfield said that we should get rid of codes of conduct, not sack ministers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.
(1) Brunstrom ‘may probe’ MPs’ expenses, BBC News, 17 May 2009
(2) See An intolerable attack on all of us, the people, by Tim Black, 3 December 2008
(3) Brunstrom ‘may probe’ MPs’ expenses, BBC News, 17 May 2009
(4) The Queen should dissolve parliament, Northampton Chroncile, 14 May 2009
(5) Dissolve Parliament over MPs’ expenses, says ex-PM’s Huntingdon agent, Hunts Post, 18 May 2009
(6) MPs’ expenses: the Queen has a role to play in stabilising government, Telegraph, 18 May 2009
(7) See Common Sense, by Thomas Paine
(8) MPs’ expenses: the Queen has a role to play in stabilising government, Telegraph, 18 May 2009
(9) Channel 4 News, 18 May 2009