Talk of a General Election in March is just fluff, unless we as a nation can decide what MPs are really for. But neither Brown nor Cameron, nor yet the Daily Telegraph, seem ready to face the real crisis: politics in Britain is broken, and it needs fixing fast. But what, and how?
What kinds of Prime Minister are there? I made a little list: Leaders, Managers, Administrators, and Caretakers.
Gordon Brown is a caretaker. He came in at the dog-end of the Blair years, and was instantly faced with crisis after crisis. The poor man has never got his head above water. The things he did well (the Millennium debt campaign, for example) are all forgotten about. Nobody can really point to anything he has done especially badly. It’s just that crises gather round him and he doesn’t seem to have the power to sort them out and get on with his real agenda. In fact, more than anything else, the public’s un-love affair with Gordon is based on him not having an agenda at all.
John Major was an administrator. Aside from the personal things (you can imagine him carefully filling in all the forms, and frowning when anyone had written in the space marked ‘do not write in this space’), his approach to Britain was to carefully make sure that we were fulfilling expectations, doing our duty, moving the agenda long in safe increments. But it wasn’t his agenda, and, since he’d been voted in because he wasn’t Thatcher, it wasn’t her agenda either. Really, it was the ‘Victorian values’ agenda — harking back to a time when politicians were good, and the people were good, and Britain could be proud of its place in the world, because it was good. John Major never went to university (he did a correspondence course in banking instead). If he had done, he would probably have discovered that history is not quite as simple as he thought it was, and that nostalgia is not all it used to be.
Cameron wants to be a manager. ‘Let us look after the economy, and we’ll do it somewhat better’, is his appeal to the electorate. I’m reminded of a story I read about a new manager who arrived at a company and found three envelopes on his desk, with a note: “If things are not going well after three months, open envelope 1. If things are not going well after six months, open envelope 2. If things are not going well after nine months, open envelope 3.” After three months, things were not going well, so he opened envelope 1. Inside was a note, which said “Blame your predecessor.” After six months, he felt obliged to open envelope 2. Inside, the note said: “Predict that things will shortly get better.” He duly did so. However, as things still did not improve, he found himself opening envelope 3 after nine months. The note inside was terse: “Prepare three envelopes”.
The ever fickle public may well believe that Cameron could not possibly do it worse than Brown, and may want to give him a chance. I have to say, I think that that confidence is misguided. But Cameron has no compelling vision of the future of Britain, and absolutely no vision at all of the future of politics in Britain. He wants to keep as much of the system intact as he can in the face of the overwhelming public hatred for the political class and their expenses. He will duck and dive and say all the right things. But Cameron will not be any kind of a reforming leader, and, to give him his due, he has never promised to be. If elected (and contacts in Mori are now saying it is unlikely he will obtain a sufficient majority), he will be blaming Brown after three months and after six predicting recovery.
Tony Blair, of course, saw himself as a great leader. As did Margaret Thatcher. But, of course, both of them led us into trouble. Thatcher established greed as the one great spiritual value of the nation and tried to turn it into policy with the poll tax, charging people based not on their ability to pay, but on the simple fact of their existence. Blair led us straight into the arms of George W Bush, and thence into the Iraqi desert. Leaders will be judged by history more strictly than managers, administrators and caretakers. It’s probably fair to say of John Major that he did no real harm, and of Brown that he did no real anything.
However, this is not the time for a caretaker, or an administrator, or even a manager. The expenses scandal is not the cause of what is wrong with politics, it is merely a symptom of it. For years the role of the MP has become steadily less clear and less valuable. Prime ministers have become more presidential, cabinet has become steadily less answerable to parliament. When I was small, ministers resigned when their departments blundered. These days, they simply blame officials and sack them.
In the mean time, parliament has increasingly realised that all it actually does is make or block legislation, and play a supporting role to the government-opposition media prize fight. Unsurprisingly, we have ever more laws, and yet no greater justice. MPs talk constantly about efficiency savings that could be made, but every bill they pass makes life more complicated and requires the creation of more jobs to administer and supervise it. And, before we see that as some kind of useful job-creation, the people who really have the ability to manage such new laws would be better employed applying their talents to the great problems of state.
I do not remotely condone the misuse of tax-payers’ money (and, more importantly, the misuse of power and privilege which we the citizen voted them in for). But I understand why some MPs, arriving perhaps full of ideals only to discover that their significance in a stitched-up secret society is essentially zero, would then look around for something else to do. The devil has indeed made work for idle hands. Or, if not the devil, Mrs Thatcher, who, to support her articulation of greed as the basic principle of the economy, created a system which rewarded inventiveness and brazenness at the expense of public duty and honesty.
People are talking about a March election suddenly. Of course, Cameron is talking it up, because he knows that the sooner the election, the less chance that he or his party will have been caught saying or doing something really stupid. But the larger question goes unanswered: just what exactly are we electing? What is an MP’s job description? What are the hours? What are the duties? What constitutes a legitimate expense and what is simply misconduct. More importantly, what is the role of the House of Commons? Clearly not to scrutinise — the House of Lords does that, and, despite the archaic system, is more effective in doing it, because it has a robust group of cross-benchers and independently-minded lords political who ensure that it is not simply the whipping dog of the party in power. Hopefully not to generate yet more regulation and legislation. We have — in many parts of our life together — moved to the point where we are no longer protecting people, but actively curtailing their legitimate life aspirations.
Liberal Democrats may have been a voice crying in the wilderness for a long time, arguing that politics should be changed, that the safe-seat system (which is at the heart of the vast majority of the really serious expenses breaches) needs to be abolished and every vote should be counted, not just the few that are cast by floating voters in a vanishingly small number of swing seats, arguing that MP expenses should be made public, and for an end to Punch-and-Judy two-party politics. A voice crying in the wilderness, but the wilderness is now at our doorstep.
When leadership is needed, we would do best to those who have been pointing the way consistently throughout their careers, not those who jumped when the bandwagon suddenly became popular.