Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A guide to alienating the nation, by the House of Commons

“The Mother of Parliaments” is a phrase sometimes used to describe the House of Commons. It was actually coined to refer to something else and anyway, at the moment, a more accurate description of that part of Westminster could be “The Mother of Expense Accounts”.

Yes, this has been a pretty awful week for the reputations of British politicians and our political institutions. The scandal of MPs’ expenses has been the elephant in the room for a while now and it finally started trumpeting loudly from the moment that the Telegraph published the first instalment of the leaked information it had acquired.

I won’t repeat the details here – there’s too much of it and it leaves such a bad taste that I’m not going to waste my energy. The point is that the sleaze that in the past tended to be associated with one party at a time, has on this occasion tainted them all. Each of the three main parties has culprits among its MPs. Collectively, the British public has witnessed this story develop with disgust (though interestingly I have not detected much surprise in the voxpops I have seen and heard) and has decided that politicians are collectively corrupt. That label can be added to all of the other less than flattering terms that we use to refer to them.

This really is not good and on this I have to take issue with Stephen Fry, much though I agree with some of his comments on the matter. Mr Fry is absolutely correct to point out that we should in general be more concerned with the macro political decisions that our MPs get right or wrong. However, although this whole brouhaha may be of little consequence in the broader context of war, poverty, health, education and global economic meltdown, I fear that the long term fall out could be profound and seriously harm engagement with our political system.

While the truth is that a large number of MPs have nothing to be ashamed of, they are all now well and truly tarred with the same brush (the cost of which was claimed back as it was used to creosote a garden fence at the second home of an unnamed backbencher). The consequences are going to be far reaching and their impact extends well beyond Westminster and the changes that will have to be made there.

We are privileged to live in a democracy and we can choose who governs at pretty much every level of our society. The problem is that more and more people are voting with their feet, rather than with a ballot paper. Since 1992, turnout in General Elections has dropped from 77% to 61% in 2005 (with a record post war low of 59% in 2001).

What can we expect next time? Younger voters are already disinterested in politics, while people who have consistently voted throughout their adult lives are disillusioned. I know – I’ve spoken to them (and they include my parents). Will the public be inspired by their French counterparts and take to the streets in a more concerted campaign of direct action? Will parties from the far right and far left benefit from the public belief that the centre is rotten (the imminent local and European elections will be an intriguing bellwether)? More questions than answers from me I’m afraid.

Meanwhile, how appealing is a career in politics today? MPs used to be among the most respected members of a community – not now. It was accepted that they worked to serve the public and lived by a political doctrine that was in fact a calling (okay, I know this was not a universal state of affairs, but I hope you take my point). Today, they are perceived to serve (and help) themselves.

Young people who are already unimpressed and uninterested in politics are becoming even more disengaged and dismissive. So far, the UK has not benefited from an Obama lightning rod, and our politicians appear to more disconnected from ‘real’ society than ever. I really worry about the future make up of Parliament in the UK, and if that institution is compromised further, the cascade to all levels of Government will inevitably happen and the effects could be disastrous.

But I am a glass half full person and I still know many good people for whom politics is a real vocation; people who hold genuine, fervent political beliefs and who strive for office for the ‘right’ reasons.

My eldest son’s godfather, Ed Fordham, is one of them, and he is not alone. There are many others from across the political spectrum and they give me hope. But their job is going to be significantly more difficult thanks to the greed and, in my opinion, stupidity of some of the current crop of MPs. And Ed is my age (late 30s), so what about the generation after him, and his colleagues and opponents of a similar vintage? Someone reassure me that they will emerge. Please. Here's Ed expressing his views on the expenses saga, 27 minutes and 28 seconds into this episode of Newsnight.

I am a layperson when it comes to politics, but that makes me no less passionate than the ‘professionals’ about what Aristotle described as the most authoritative science. According to Aristotle, politics governs the other sciences and their ends serve to meet its end, which is nothing less than the human good. Here in the UK at the moment, the science of politics feels a lot less dignified and worthy than that. I hope that will change for the better again soon.

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