democracy

What should the qualities of an MP be?

Public anger is now so great that it is likely that — even if no-one resigns right now — many MPs will choose not to stand again at the next election.

Others who do choose to re-stand may discover that their popularity has faded faster than they could possibly have imagined.

In which case, we will probably see the biggest turnover of MPs in living memory.

But, in that case, if we are not satisfied with the current crop of MPs, what should we actually be looking for? It’s easy to trot out ‘integrity, leadership, vision’, but are these really the qualities that define a good member of parliament? And, if so, in what measure? Half of Britain could probably make some claim to these qualities. Most of the MPs who are now under the most intense scrutiny have probably made claims of this kind, and probably most of them still believe that they are described by them.

And, actually, although MPs talk about leadership, most back-benchers are followers rather than leaders. MPs talk about integrity, but often its just a code-word for stubbornly pursuing their own idea as a matter of ‘principle’, even when it is proven to be wrong. And the word vision can be used to mean anything you want.

So let me offer, as a starter, another list, as to what we should really look for in a constituency MP. To make it memorable, I’ve organised it according to the vowels, A,E, I, O, U, as follows:

Available
Effective
Inspiring
One of us
Upright

Available, because the most important function of the constituency MP is that he or she serves the constituency. Once it was enough to hold constituency surgeries once a week. Today’s constituency MP needs to be available by post, by email, in person, through Facebook (maybe), even by Twitter. The moment that a constituency MP puts his political career ahead of his constituents needs is the moment they should elect someone else. The first question I would be asking a prospective MP, therefore, is, will you be available when I need you? And, to a sitting MP, are you available right now?

Effective, because, ultimately, we elect MPs to do something. Far too many MPs — and this is, really, more serious than the expenses — would struggle to point to their achievements over the last five years. Whether they are paid £67,000 salary, or £300,000 with expenses and staff counted in, or just £6,000, an MP who is ineffective is a waste of money. Effectiveness comes in different forms, of course, but the second question I would ask a candidate is: how have you demonstrated effectiveness in your non-political life so far? To a sitting MP, I would ask straight out: what have you done since you were elected that actually counts for anything?

Inspiring, because, for good or ill, MPs are the leaders of Britain, and if they cannot inspire us, nobody will. It’s all very well for the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak up, but an awful lot of people are not part of his church, and therefore do not feel he represents them. Likewise, we like to hear from celebs, athletes and broadcasters, but none of those people have a connection to us. To be inspiring, someone must be on fire about something. So, my next question to a candidate would be, how will you inspire us? To a sitting MP it is more direct: who have you inspired, and when?

I was going to put ‘ordinary’ rather than ‘one of us’, but, in fact, we really need our MPs to be extraordinary. But to be true representatives in a democracy, they must be men and women of the people. True, an MP’s life is different from the run of the mill. But an MP must understand and be a part of the society that elects her or him. So I would ask a candidate: how are you like me? How are you like the people on my street? And I would ask a sitting MP: how have you stayed ‘one of us’ through your parliamentary career. I think this may be a very hard question to answer for many of the moat-cleaners and tennis-court repairers.

Finally, upright. We expect not merely adherence to the same codes and laws as the rest of us, but that an MP adheres to the very highest ideals. Why should we elect someone who is only averagely honest, averagely compassionate, averagely self-controlled? Like Caesar’s wife, an MP should be above reproach — not, as some MPs would have it, because reproach should be stifled, but because their lifestyles and daily interactions demonstrate complete integrity of word and action.

These, to me, are the qualities we should look for in our MPs. We require further qualities for those in government. But this is a start.

Telegraph should not be so smug

MPs’ expenses: the story that changed politics

There is more than one thing wrong with Britain’s public life. The Daily Telegraph’s glee at publishing a set of expenses which were going to be published shortly anyway, and its smugness at engineering ‘one of the biggest parliamentary scandals in British history’ (its own rather pompous words) is one of those things.

Our reactions to the MP expense story could be sorrow, or they could be anger. But smugness, delight, glee, self-righteousness, self-importance, and revelling in muddying the waters as much as possible should not.

The Telegraph’s story about itself reads more like the back cover of a John Le Carré novel (except, with a John Le Carré, you know that the prose inside the novel will be vastly more elegant than what someone made up for the back cover).

But the Telegraph did not ‘uncover’ this material. It merely pre-empted it. The uncovering was done by others. Most notably by Heather Brooke, the US journalist who first put in a Freedom of Information request on MP expenses, after questioning them unsuccessfully since 2004. In April 2007, Tory MP David Maclean tried to introduce a bill exempting MPs from disclosure under Freedom of Information. It was Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and Norman Baker who used Maclean’s own favourite technique to talk out the bill. But it came back shortly thereafter, as both Brown and Cameron tacitly backed attempts to keep MP’s ways secret.

In June 2007, the Information Commissioner backed disclosure, but not of receipts, but in February 2008, the Information Tribunal ruled that the receipts, too, should be released. The House of Commons appealed, but, in May last year, Brooke won her High Court case, and the claims of 14 MPs, including receipts, were made public.

Following this, all MP claims, with receipts, were due for release this summer.

All that the Telegraph did was buy an illegal copy of the receipts and release them early, for their own purposes.

I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough. Brooke, not the Telegraph, deserves the full credit for the story ‘that changed British politics’. The Telegraph did nothing but breach an embargo. To be sure, it was a sharp piece of newspaper marketing. But the Telegraph contributed nothing to the actual process of disclosure — it merely took credit for it at the end.

Brooke’s response to this is rather less smug, as she outlines in this BBC article. To her, it is a point about democracy, not a prurient interest in which MPs buy champagne and which buy Scotch eggs.

Brooke’s intention was to re-energise democracy, not to boost sales through cheque-book journalism. And, equally, her intention was to show things for what they were, not to pour the maximum amount of scorn whether deserved or not.

As the public, we do not have to buy into the Telegraph’s version of events. Likewise, we do not have to buy into their judgements. Someone who spent money on having light bulbs replaced after an electrical fault is not ‘guilty’ merely because his actions appear comic. A couple who claimed vastly more than should be allowed by a complicated arrangement with second homes should not be allowed to get away with a simple resignation. MPs who claimed for mortgages that did not exist should face the full weight of the consequences.

All these distinctions, the Telegraph attempts to blur. It presents a picture of politicians as all more or less on a sliding scale of corruption.

This was not Brooke’s intention.

The Telegraph should own up: it wasn’t really their story.

As for the public, we must now do the most difficult thing in these circumstances. We must re-engage with politics, not casting away in protest to single-issue parties about which we know very little, but making it absolutely clear to the main parties what we require of them. More people should vote, not less.

Finally, I predict that a number of MPs, while protesting their innocence now, will choose not to stand at the next general election. We therefore need a new cohort of candidates to replace them. This is not a popular thought at the moment. Just by being a parliamentary candidate, one is at risk of being tarred with the same accusation ‘you’re only in it for the money’. But if no-one stands, then democracy dies.

Those who can, must.

Daily Telegraph has gone too far

MPs consider legal action – BBC

Something is rotten in British politics. The scandal of MPs misusing the expenses system to feather their own nests has brought parliament into such disrepute that it exceeds any crisis of confidence since the Great Reform Act. But in attempting to blacken the name of every MP, the Daily Telegraph has gone too far, and must lead us to question the self-regulation which newspapers see as their bulwark against censorship.

Every journalist and news camera man knows that what you choose to write about, and where you point the camera, determines the story. The press has a duty not to mislead the public — and this is enshrined in the Press Complaints Commission code. A half-story can be as damning — and as damned — a set of lies as something entirely made-up. When the Daily Telegraph decided to publish that Jack Straw had over-claimed his council tax expenses, they failed to mention that he had discovered this himself and had paid back all the money of his own accord. The Telegraph may counter that they were unaware of this information. But if they were unaware, it is because they failed to take the most elementary journalistic precaution that every cub reporter on the lowliest local weekly free-sheet takes — ringing up the people who you are writing about and asking for a comment, or an explanation. This is the essential step of journalistic integrity that ensures that newspapers take aim at the right targets, and leave the innocent alone.

Jack Straw could take the Telegraph to court, but he probably won’t. Getting mixed up in the courts will only damage him further. Once published, the story never really goes away. There are enough people, even broadsheet readers, who believe what they read as a matter of principle, and see denials as merely further evidence of guilt.

The three things most necessary for a democracy to thrive are principled politicians, a free, self-regulating press, and an engaged electorate. The tragedy of the Telegraph’s cheque-book journalism is that, in railing against the alleged corruption of politicians, they have done no more than underline the untrustworthiness of their own editorial. The next step in this vicious circle is that more and more voters will switch off from politics altogether, perhaps turning to single-issue parties, or abandoning any interest in our national life.

Every year, when MORI conducts a poll on which professions are most and least trusted, doctors and nurses vie for the top spot. Politicians and journalists are always neck and neck at the bottom. They have each other — in a great measure — to thank for this.

Opposites detract: Iran and the Netherlands in conflict over Qu’ran film

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Iranians urge Dutch to ban film
Just the other day Al-Jazeera television refused to adopt a media code which would ban satellite channels deemed to have offended Arab leaders or national or religious symbols. Today, Iran urges the Netherlands to ban a film made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders on the subject of the Qu’ran. According to the BBC, Iranian justice minister Gholam Hussein Elham said ‘freedom of speech should not be used as a cover for attacking moral and religious values.’

Iran and the Netherlands are at the absolute polar opposites of views on freedom of speech. In Britain we would (I hope) be horrified at the suggestion that the media should not be allowed to offend national leaders. Our media (or, at least, a proportion of it) seems to exist for no purpose greater than to annoy, irritate and disdain our politicians. On the other hand, most of us would see a film which (apparently) ‘will show the Muslim holy book is an inspiration for murder’ as a tad on the injudicious side. Quite how this would play under incitement to religious hatred laws is a question which would have to be resolved by the courts, but most of us would baulk at such a hardline attack on another person’s religion. We were (sort of) all-right with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, because this was a Muslim criticising Islam. Geert Wilders has no Islamic credentials, and it could be argued that people who don’t understand something shouldn’t attack it. (As it happens, Islamic response to the Satanic verses was exactly the opposite — Rushdie was condemned in part because he was a Muslim: a non-believer would have been regarded with more tolerance).

This is in many ways similar to the furore around Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission, also made with the help of a Dutch politician, then then MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh, who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004, described his 10 minute film as a ‘political pamphlet’. Its aim, ostensibly, was to demonstrate a link between the Qu’ran and abuse of women. Following Van Gogh’s murder, mosques and Muslim schools were fire-bombed, and there were subsequent counterattacks against Christian churches.

It would be simplistic (though attractive to many) to paint this as ‘Dutch stand for freedom – good, Muslims oppose freedom -bad’. But things are never this simple. The same Ayaan Hirsi Ali who worked with Theo Van Gogh resigned from the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) on May 16 2006 after a prolonged attempt by another politician to have her stripped of her Dutch Citizenship. The attempt prompted scandal in the Dutch parliament, eventually, albeit indirectly, leading to the collapse of the government. Those with long memories will recall that her resignation was 100 years – less two months – after the final exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus in the Dreyfus affair which shook France. The parallels are more than frightening: at the time, France represented itself as the bastion of freedom in all Europe. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all except Jews, who could be sloppily tried and deprived of all three of these virtues. Today, the Netherlands stands as the most outspoken proponent (perhaps alongside Denmark) of freedom in the entire world. Unless, of course, you are a Muslim or a foreigner, in which case things may not turn out as well for you.

In England, we have the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that Sharia could become a part of our legal outlook. In Holland, they are making films deliberately aimed at denigrating the Qu’ran. In Iran and the rest of the Middle-East, they are signing charters which forbid the criticism of Arab leaders.

What can we conclude from this week’s furores?

First, we must accept that there are fundamentally different views of the meaning of freedom in post-Christian Europe and in the Middle East. It is occasionally argued that the views most often associated with Islam are those of an extremist minority. Perhaps, but the charter which threatens to ban Al Jazeera satellite television is not the work of a minority of extremists, but of main stream Arab states – states with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships.

Second, we must accept that, whatever other states may adopt, in Britain we have a democratic tradition which depends on this post-Christian freedom of expression, which is a limited freedom, but not a strongly limited one. Our kind of democracy cannot function without this freedom. It might be argued that this demonstrates that our kind of democracy is the wrong kind, but only within the conscious paradox that one could not put forth that sort of argument in any other context.

Third, we must accept that it is incumbent upon us, if we are to maintain and propagate this kind of democracy in a wider global community, that we do so responsibly. But responsibility is something that people do themselves, not have done to them. The only person who could legitimately stop Wilders from producing the film he has produced is Wilders himself. However, the culture he is working in (a culture which I understand somewhat, as I am married into it) is one which celebrates giving offence as the mark of true freedom of speech.

Fortunately, it is not for us to determine the culture of the Netherlands. But we are able to determine our own culture. Freedom of speech is incredibly precious to us. Which is why we must propagate it by using it responsibly – not shying away from the true issues, but, equally, not giving needless offence for the sake of giving offence. That is neither liberal, nor democratic.

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