Who elected these knights to rule parliament?
Grubby elected – and kick-outable – MPs are still more of a democratic choice than squeaky-clean appointed and unaccountable civil servant Sirs.
Britain’s war in Afghanistan goes from bad to worse, the Lisbon Treaty consolidates the unaccountable power of the Euro-bureaucracy, the UK economy refuses to climb out of recession even on paper, never mind in reality, and the government pours billions more into keeping the banks afloat.
So, which big issue is the British political class obsessed with? You guessed it – MPs’ expenses and living arrangements.
The report finally published today by Sir Christopher Kelly, the parliamentary standards commissioner, recommends that in the future MPs should be prevented from claiming mortgage interest on second homes, instead made to stay in selected rented flats whilst in London (and prevented from claiming even for that if they live within an hour of Westminster), and barred from claiming expenses for employing members of their own families.
To anybody normal outside the Westminster ‘village’, these must seem petty issues of no real interest. Yet the way that the endless wrangling over MPs’ expenseszzz has yet again come to dominate the political agenda does raise some bigger and less boring questions.
Such as, who should decide whether an MP is fit to represent the public – the voters or unelected civil servants such as Sir Christopher and Sir Thomas Legg, the official running the probe into past expenses claims? And when it comes to holding MPs to account, should they be judged on whether they employ their wife, or whether they have presided over mass unemployment in the UK? Should their position be questioned because of what they have claimed in expenses – or because they have claimed political leadership in society and made a complete duck-house of it?
Parliamentary democracy is supposed to mean the country is run by our elected representatives. It is also meant to entail presenting the electorate – that’s us – with a choice of political programmes for the future. The manner in which the expenses nonsense has taken over political life threatens both those sides of the democratic system.
Of course, parliamentary democracy is a very imperfect form and nobody should have any illusions about its ability to control the social power of capitalism and the state machine. But the rule of parliamentary democracy is far better than the undemocratic alternative system now being mooted. In short, it is better for politics to be decided by a bad but democratically elected MP with questionable expenses than a squeaky-clean appointed bureaucrat with impeccable credentials, answerable to nobody.
The issue here is not the detail of the proposals for expenses reform. Who really cares whether MPs buy or rent, or pay their wives to answer letters? No, the trouble is the assumptions that lay behind this entire furore and the consequences for democratic politics. Political accountability is in danger of being replaced by accountancy, political debate by book-keeping disputes, the clash of election manifestos by the spectacle of candidates pointing to one another’s claim forms, democracy by quangocracy.
It is bad enough that the lifestyles of MPs should take over the agenda, so that politics becomes an incestuous affair of politicians talking about themselves. But now we are informed that this issue is actually so important to our system of government that those untrustworthy MPs and their ill-informed electorate must be excluded from it. So ministers have said there will be no parliamentary vote on the proposed reforms. Instead it is all to be left in the hands of Sir Philip, Sir Thomas and Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, newly appointed chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority that will implement the proposals.
Their pursuit of MPs is all of course done in the name of the people, playing to the public gallery as it is imagined in the pages of the Daily Mail. In reality it is more of a punitive exercise by senior officials against uppity MPs, a bout of entirely intra-establishment feuding.
Political life in Britain is now such a closed elite affair that even rank-and-file MPs are to be kept out of it, while the public are reduced to booing spectators. It is not that we at spiked want people to have a say in the disputes over mortgage interest and family employees. There are far more important things to talk about. But there will be no prospect of that while politics is increasingly left in the hands of the state elite.
The way that the expenses scandal has both come to dominate politics and been removed from political debate is a sign of the times in which the electorate are increasingly excluded from politics and offered no genuine choices. The expenses issue has touched public nerve over recent months as a symbol of the isolation and authority crisis of the political class. But if we want political change we will need to attack more than symbols and start a debate about the big issues facing society.
Nobody wants to defend MPs today, and that includes spiked. Not because we think they are all crooked or corrupt, but because they have brought this on themselves through the degradation of political debate over more than a decade. It was the political class – first New Labour and then the new Conservaties – who de-politicised politics by making ‘sleaze’ and scandal and ‘character’ and behaviour the standard by which politicians are judged, rather than by their beliefs and political actions. And when we ask who voted for Sir Christopher Kelly, well, in a way they did, through their spineless capitulation to the march of the bureaucrats.
It would be no great loss to get rid of most MPs along with Kelly and his ilk. But that should be a matter for the mass of voters, not the members of an elite committee.
There is a pressing need for a General Election in Britain now, to shake up political life. The trouble is that in this climate we face the depressing prospect of an election campaign largely dominated by expenses and all of that, where every sitting MP who dares to stand for re-election is pilloried for his cleaning bills more than his principles, and those bidding to replace them make no political pledges other than a promise to live in piety and poverty like St Francis of Assisi.
If all of this is enough to make you feel like sticking your head in a gas oven bought from John Lewis on expenses, support spiked’s Vote for Politics campaign to give us a choice worth making and re-enfranchise the electorate.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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