The implosion of the political class

The expenses scandal is not A Very English Revolution. It looks more like the self-destruction of the House of Commons.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

This is an edited version of an introduction that Brendan O’Neill gave at the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum on 31 May 2009.

A lot of big words have been used to describe the expenses scandal. Some refer to it as a ‘revolution’, imagining that there is a voters’ uprising against corrupt MPs. Others describe it as ‘A Very English Revolution’, as a Daily Telegraph headline put it, meaning that this is a polite uprising, led by erudite journalists rather than a flame-wielding mob. Others have even used the terms ‘war’ and ‘civil war’, particularly in reference to the media’s role in toppling MPs.

What all of these interpretations share in common is the idea that the political class is being attacked from without, that what we are witnessing is a clash of interests or a clash of organisations, similar to that which occurs in a ‘revolution’. I think these fantasies about brave journalists or ‘the people’ bringing down MPs by exposing their corrupt spending habits are problematic, and disguise what is actually taking place.

What we are really watching is the self-destruction of the political class, the self-immolation, if you like, of the elected wing of the British government. Yes, there are various interests floating around in this debate, opportunistically attaching themselves to the expenses scandal; and yes, everyday voters are expressing their understandable disdain and disgust with New Labour through the expenses issue. But the really decisive factor at play is the decadent and self-destructive tendencies of the political class itself. This is not a revolution; it is an implosion.

In terms of the origins, the import and the impact of the expenses scandal, again and again the story has been sustained and inflamed by the actions of increasingly isolated politicians. The obsession with MPs’ expenses and moral turpitude that has dominated public debate for the past four weeks did not come out of thin air; nor was it simply the product of some apparently brave journalist wondering one morning: ‘How much do MPs spend on cat food?’ Rather, the logic and momentum of this story – the script if you like – came from the actions of the Commons itself.

The first key thing has been the political class’s elevation of sleaze-busting and scandal-monitoring over the past 10 years, which has implicitly made parliament and politics into objects of suspicion to be checked and investigated. The second important thing has been the political class’s denigration of the House of Commons in favour of less democratic ways of ‘doing politics’, which has robbed the Commons of much of its purpose and political sovereignty and helped to turn it into a efficiency-focused passer of legislation packed with jobsworths and managers. And as we know, jobsworths and managers tend to be judged by narrow fiscal criteria: how much are you spending; how much are you saving; how time-efficient are you…

In another era, the question of how much an MP claimed for the upkeep of his home or the filling of his larder might have been brushed aside as unimportant, or at best treated as a practical problem that required a practical solution (maybe a simple pay rise for MPs and the scrapping of the expenses system). The reason it has assumed such importance today is because it comes at the end of a decade of – and can be seen as the logical conclusion to – the political class’s own promotion of cleanliness and transparency as the be-all and end-all of political life.

New Labour came to power in 1997 largely on an anti-Tory sleaze ticket, and promised to make politics cleaner, whiter and more transparent. To this end, new quangoes to monitor MPs’ standards, pay and behaviour were set up, while the media became ever-more obsessed with keeping a tab on MPs’ promise to be morally pure. It was the political class itself that made its personal habits and peccadilloes into matters of public concern. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that there has already been an ‘expenditure scandal’ – and it was not uncovered by the media, but rather volunteered for public consumption by the political class itself.

In 2004, in anticipation of Freedom of Information legislation that was coming into force in January 2005, the Commons authorities published the details of expenditure claims made by each MP. In 2007, the Commons voluntarily published a more detailed breakdown of MPs’ expenditures, including how much they spent on travel. The figures showed that MPs claimed £78million in expenses and allowances between 2003 and 2004, and £86.8million between 2005 and 2006. It’s largely forgotten now, but this voluntary dissemination of expenditure on staff, offices, travel, domestic upkeep and so on led to a media storm. Parliament was referred to as ‘Wasteminster’ and MPs were labelled a ‘bunch of thieving, fiddling, wasteful, good for nothing, feather-bedded spongers’.

In publishing the actual receipts that underpin some of these expenditure claims, the Telegraph is taking its cue from the political class itself, from the top-down idea that these fairly petty matters should be the stuff of politics today. New Labour has discovered that transparency begets, not trust, but further suspicion – the more politicians make their personal purity into their major selling point, and the more they imply that parliament is a potentially corrupt and sleazy place, the more they invite scrutiny of their every foible and Kit Kat purchase.

The second action of the political class that has made something like MPs’ pay and expenses into a big issue is its denigration of the Commons. Under New Labour in particular, the Commons, the only elected part of British government, has been turned from a debating chamber into a place of efficient and frequently conformist rubber-stamping of new legislation. It has become a place bereft of serious or visionary debate, which makes it difficult for us to understand why MPs are in there except as a means of earning a wage and ‘feathering their beds’.

New Labour, always more of a PR-driven collection of ambitious individuals than a mass, rooted party, has long had an innate disdain for the Commons. One of Tony Blair’s first acts as prime minister in 1997 was to whittle down Prime Minister’s Questions from a twice-weekly event to a weekly event. He preferred focus groups, grand press conferences and cultivating relationships with journalists over having a debate in the Commons. Indeed, all of the current talk about the need to reform the Commons, which apparently has been an ‘old boys’ club’ for hundreds of years, overlooks the fact that Blair instituted an incessant churnover of frantic reforms between 1997 and 2001 – in the name of making the Commons more managerial and efficient, rather than more democratic and political.

Between 1997 and 2001, the Commons’ Modernisation Committee – also known, Orwellian-style, as ModComm – published numerous substantive reports. Only two of them proposed strengthening democratic debate in the Commons; the rest proposed making it more ‘efficient’. One change, which ‘further limited parliamentary scrutiny’, was the introduction of ‘programming motions’, which effectively brought the guillotine down on debates about new legislation in the interests of ‘saving time’ (1). There were also, as one critical commentator put it, ‘a series of other procedural changes which made it harder for MPs to challenge the executive’ (2). This should not distract from the fact that, of course, many of the 1997 and 2001 intake of Labour MPs had little to no interest in ever challenging the executive – but it should remind us of the potential pitfalls of speedy, off-the-cuff, cynical reform of parliament.

As a consequence of the denigration of the Commons, many MPs came to be seen – and indeed became – little more than jobbing politicians. ModComm was obsessed with making MPs’ jobs ‘easier’. As one backbench Labour MP complained: ‘I was sent here to do a job, and it has been put to me that [these reforms] will make my job easier. But I was not elected to have an easy job; I was elected to scrutinise legislation.’

If the political class’s promotion of transparency and sleaze-policing has made the Commons into an object of suspicion, then its democracy-phobic streamlining of Commons procedures has made the House seem little more than a collection of jobsworths. A consequence of what some refer to as the ‘end of ideology’ and the death of the left-right divide, the dual promotion of personality politics and parliamentary efficiency has taken centre stage. As such, the familiar cry of disgruntled voters – ‘They’re just in it for the money’ – makes some sense. Why else are they there? The combination of the political class’s promotion of distrust of politicians and its hollowing out of the Commons is the feathered bed of the expenses scandal, the basis to the contemporary obsession with politicians’ behaviour and politicians’ pay.

As well as providing the script for this scandal, the political class has sustained and even boosted it. It has responded to the exposés with a game of reform one-upmanship, with each party leader trying to outdo the other in expressing his disgust with MPs’ behaviour and his determination to transform the Commons forever. So Gordon Brown says MPs have behaved ‘appallingly’ and he wants to introduce a new code of conduct, while David Cameron wants the power to recall badly-behaved MPs and Nick Clegg even wants to cancel MPs’ summer holiday. At every step, the bad faith – one might even say self-loathing – of the political class has turned a scandal into a constitutional crisis, and added historic political momentum to the Telegraph’s titillating tales.

There are few people around today who would miss Labour, the Tories or the Lib Dems if they died out. But the current theatrical self-destruction of the political class is not such a good thing: the further labelling of politics as a necessarily dirty and suspicious pursuit, which must be minutely monitored and subjected to codes of behaviour, could leave us with politicians even more boring, un-daring, apolitical and afraid to speak their minds than we have seen in recent years.

This is an edited version of an introduction that Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked , gave at the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum on 31 May 2009. The Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum meets monthly in Central London. For more information, click here.

(1) Blair’s Britain 1997-2007, Edited by Anthony Sheldon, Cambridge University Press, 2007

(2) Blair’s Britain 1997-2007, Edited by Anthony Sheldon, Cambridge University Press, 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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