Saturday, 23 May 2009

The upside-down Archbishop

One of the greatest challenges for those interested in politics is to decide where to draw the line between political and personal criticism. As a general rule, the higher someone climbs up the greasy pole of political power the more open he or she is to personal attack. Jeremy Clarkson famously described our current so-called Prime Minister a "one-eyed Scottish idiot", I suspect he would not have described Gordon Brown in that way were he a junior minister. As a matter of inescapable fact he would still have been a one-eyed Scottish idiot, but he would not have been in the firing line for that sort of personal attack.

High rank puts one in the firing line for personal attacks whether or not they are fair or accurate. It's part of the territory - set yourself up above the little people and the little people expect a lot of you. In real life it is necessary for some to be above the little people. Like it or loath it, we need government and that means we need government ministers, and that means we need a hierarchy of government ministers, and that means there is someone at the very top of the pyramid. The higher you climb the more we little people will expect of you and, it has to be said, the more you will profit when your time in office has ended.

Let's go down a few ranks to workaday MPs. They don't have the glory of wielding real power but they are the Parliamentary representatives of all their constituents, on average something like 80,000 people. Of that 80,000, on average something like 78,500 will earn less than an MP's salary. Only a very few of those that earn more than their MP will not be under any pressure to justify their income. Maybe they are authors or musicians raking in royalties, or the sons and daughters of wealthy people living on the produce of historic family investments. Such people are few and far between. The other high earners are in business and answerable to customers and/or shareholders every day of the year. MPs' customers are their constituents, the vast majority of whom struggle to balance the family books from one month to the next. News that our MP has been paid by us for a personal rather than a work expense might receive a "tut, tut" when times are good, but in a recession it receives a "how dare you?"

The single reason we criticise our MPs for using loopholes and manipulating the rules as we might in our lives (if only we could) is that they are above us. They are above us constitutionally and practically, so we have every right to expect them to behave at least as ethically as they tell us to behave. That we might have turned a blind eye for years is neither here nor there, when circumstances change so does the way we all look at things. In particular something we would not have been too concerned about at one time can become a matter of fundamental importance which must be changed. There is no once and for all, right-or-wrong assessment of the matter. In relation to MPs' expenses/allowances it cannot rationally be said that the widespread criticisms being made of MPs now lack merit because they were not made before, nor can it rationally be said that we were wrong not to raise these criticisms earlier. It is all a matter of context. For example, adultery by senior politicians was far more of an issue after John Major launched his "back to basics" campaign than it was before because the government was openly promoting fidelity. Similarly, hearing politicians from all sides tell us to tighten our belts because of recession makes their financial waistlines fair game for comment.

Only time can determine when the criticisms have run their course. It's not like a guillotined debate in the House of Commons in which a vote is forced after a certain time whether everyone with a desire to speak has had their turn, these criticisms will be made by real people for as long as they feel there is a need to make them. Any MP who resigns or announces they will not seek reelection might find they drop off the comment radar, any who do not answer criticism satisfactorily will find they are just delaying the inevitable. In an article in yesterday's Times newspaper the Archbishop of Canterbury said "the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price in terms of our ability to salvage some confidence in our democracy." I could not disagree with him more.

What is happening now is an essential part of a mature democracy. You do not damage a system based on the notion of representation of the people by forcing the main representational institution to meet the standards required of it by the people. No damage is being done to confidence in our democracy, only to confidence in the way Parliament is behaving. The answer is to force it to change, and that is happening. It is happening because, not despite, "continuing systematic humiliation of politicians".

Confidence in democracy is a deeply ingrained cultural force in Britain. Democracy is often described as the least bad system of government but it is much more than that. It is something that helps to hold the country together. We all know that our personal, individual power to change the law or influence government policy is so small as to be virtually nil, we also know that both the law and policy can be altered where the public mood (expressed in countless different ways) is so strong that government and Parliament have to accede to that mood. In recent times we have seen significant changes of policy on petrol taxes, the 10p income tax rate and, most recently, rights of settlement for Gurkhas; all of them brought about by public pressure and criticism. This has not damaged our democracy, it has enhanced it by showing that it works.

The only way our democracy can be damaged is by damaging the ability of the little people to influence the big people. If it takes the humiliation of dozens of big people in order to ensure that influence remains in place, so be it.

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