Something odd and deeply ironic is happening. People who have never voted are telling us we voted for the wrong people. People who have invested their lives in being famous are suddenly deciding that they have the attributes necessary to run the country. Meanwhile, politicians that most of us have either never heard of, or not heard from for a very, very long time are coming out of the woodwork, blaming the system for their faults, or the public for its jealousy.
Reform is long over due, and the question is not really any more whether it will take place, but how far it will go. At the one end, David Cameron would like to change as little as possible and shift the bulk of changes away from MP remuneration. At the other end, persons such as myself believe it is high time for a fair voting system, a ban on MP second jobs, an expenses system which pays genuine expenses and nothing more, public accommodation for MPs, and an outright ban on profiting from the public purse. These are largely the views shared by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, names which are curiously untarnished by the current crisis, and who therefore doubly should be listened to.
Reform is all very well (and, very, very essential), but we are missing something more important and more profound. Even if the Daily Telegraph had only been able to point to light bulbs, trouser presses, scotch eggs and the costs of genuine mortgages on second homes which had never been flipped, where the mortgage arrangements had been made to place the least burden on the public purse — even if this had been the case, many people who still have been very angry.
As a general rule, people are angry at politicians, and (in my experience) even angrier at people who are trying to get elected as politicians but who have not yet succeeded. Last year a man stopped me and asked me if I was opposed to some local piece of Tory nonsense. I said I was. This did not satisfy him. “Would you be opposed to it in all possible circumstances?” He asked. I asked him what he meant by that. He insisted that I give him what he called a ‘straight answer’. I tried to explain to him that he could probably come up with some kind of circumstance in which I would change my view, but that I was, as things were, completely opposed, and in any probable circumstance, likely to remain so. He wasn’t at all satisfied, and told me that it was typical of politicians not to give a ‘straight answer’.
But the truth is, I gave him a straight answer straight away. He then changed the question to the point at which no meaningful answer could be given. Why? Possibly he’d seen Paxman do this on television, but, deep down, I think he was secretly disappointed that I had given him a straight answer, and wanted to find some form of the question for which there could be no straight answer, which would then justify his belief that, if I was in politics, I must be trying to trick him.
The funny thing was, this was a man who had never voted, and probably has not voted since.
Do we somehow, for some cathartic sociological reason, need a class of people who are always in the wrong, no matter what they say? Now that people are uncomfortable about sexual, racial, gender, disability or religious stereotyping, are we down to the ultimate outcasts, who can comfortably be blamed in all circumstances without the risk of the critic being criticised for his criticism?
There must surely be more to it than that.
I went to have a meeting about the budget a few weeks ago, with none other than Vince Cable. The first thing he said was that MPs really don’t get to comment on the budget. The budget is set by the government, and either accepted or rejected as a single piece of legislation. Here was the man who probably (and by popular agreement) understands more about our economy than anyone else in Britain, and yet he can have no useful input in setting the budget which is the government’s fundamental economic instrument.
The truth is that parliament is still locked into a medieval mindset, where the will of the crown is put forwards by legislation, and the only restraint on the power of the crown is also legislation. Therefore, all that parliament can do is make laws. In practice, the group in parliament with the greatest number of votes also gets to be the government, which has essentially limitless executive powers (since we have no written constitution), except as limited by parliament’s legislation, or, more likely, by the constraints of time, money, and a guess about what will play well with the electorate.
But very few people, when they talk to would-be MPs on the doorstep, enquire about what legislation they are thinking of passing. Rather, they want to know what they will do if they are in government. This is touching, but fanciful. Most MPs will never be in government, because, even if their party wins a majority, they themselves will be required to play the part of more-or-less loyal backbenchers, or possibly and at best, after the modern fashion, junior ministers who are a sort of lower management between cabinet and civil servants.
Is this really what we want? We are frequently told that the real work of parliament happens in committees, but this is not really the case. In the European parliament this is much more true, but in Westminster, at least in recent years, it seems that committees only have power to embarrass the government, which can still push through its programme if it wants to.
Those who advocate our ‘winner takes all’ style of government claim that it makes for strong governments, and anything else makes for weak government. But this is not borne out by history. Rather, what we saw with both the Thatcher and Blair governments, is that they won initially with big majorities and a huge amount of enthusiasm to unite Britain, seize the day, and do what must be done. But, as their time in office progressed, they gradually ran out of ideas. Thatcher’s reign ended in the debacle of the poll tax, and Blair, though he had the sense to get out while the going was good, would have finished up in the double crisis that Gordon Brown now finds himself in. With nothing to renew them, governments run out of good people, and so are forced to put progressively less suitable (but politically sound) people into key positions. Instead of the campaigning Clare Short, and then the (largely famous because of his father) Hilary Benn, we now have Douglas Alexander as minister for international development. Peter Mandelson, so closely identified with the original Blair victory, has wandered in and out of government, finally finding his way into the Lords. Estelle Morris, the last Secretary of State for Education that anyone can remember, quit the job because she didn’t feel up to it. John Prescott had to go. And so on. I don’t particularly mourn the loss of these people (well, perhaps Estelle Morris a little bit), because, by and large, I feel they were essentially bad at their jobs. But the bright constellation of Blair’s inner circle is now dimmed. Instead of prudent Gordon Brown we now have Alistair Darling, instead of the bright Blair smile we now have dull Gordon. Thatcher’s mob fared no better. By the time John Major came to office (but not, as was often pointed out, to power), there were very few left who could command the public’s respect.
And yet, parliament ought to have been able to attract the brightest and the best from all walks of life. So how come we don’t seem to be able to put together a half decent government?
It is high time for the British system to be transformed. We don’t run an empire any more. We don’t have local landowners representing the interests of their illiterate tenants. We are not trying to hold back the power of the barons, or of an unruly monarch with a penchant for raising taxes to fund more battle ships. Our system is full of checks and balances, but they are largely checks on the wrong things, and balances to forces which no longer exist.
Ask most voters to explain the way in which the Lords, the Commons, the Crown and the Courts interrelate, and they will look at you baffled. But this is not because voters are uninformed, uninterested or unintelligent. The system itself is ludicrously complicated, functions poorly, is hopelessly inefficient, and, as we have too often seen, results in the misapplication of poorly drafted legislation for a result far from the original intention. No wonder voters are apathetic. It would be like asking them to vote on who should drive a train that has no engine, or who should wash the dishes when there is no water.
There is now unprecedented energy in Britain for the debate on what politics is for. But we seem intent on diverting it into a discussion of whether the BNP will benefit from the protest vote, and how poorly Labour might do in a year’s time. These are interesting, to be sure, but bring us no closer to the fundamental reforms without which the last month in politics has been no more than an exercise in mass prudery.