Skip to main content

Parliamentary Navel Gazing in the UK

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The ugly debacle of parliamentary corruption, moral if not legal, yesterday culminated in the resignation of British House Speaker Michael Martins. In case you missed it, the sorry saga revolves around systemic abuse of privilege by our parliamentarians revealed by the Daily Telegraph. British tax payers, as it turns out, have been covering inordinate bills for expenses at first, second and third homes, sometimes within a couple of miles of each other. It is not that a majority of MPs have been caught "on the take", but enough to warrant serious navel gazing.

People I know close to the British political system were confident at the outset, arguing that the abuses were minimal in comparison with the great good being done and moreover, abuses here probably compare favourably with those in the private sector. Financial sector bigwigs pop to mind. The comparison is apt. As recently as August/September 2008, friends in the big banks were describing stock market turbulence as jitters and no more. Now, they're all wrong. Michael Martins is first great head to roll but I'm not sure that the bloodletting will end there.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged to set up a "Star Chamber" of sorts to clean house for the Labour Party to which he belongs. Those deemed to have acted in an unacceptable manner will have to go, he says. A new and independent body will be set up to police MP pay.

Two articles in The Times caught my attention today. The one, by Daniel Finkelstein states that the times they are a changing. Information technology has opened the political process in an unprecedented fashion, and Martins' replacement must accept this. Whereas the large centralised parties of today were fashioned in competition for scarce space in the mass media, there is now "a much messier, much freer market in information (that) changes everything". Because political information, such as the above parliamentary abuses, cannot be controlled, there will less "central accountability and more individual accountability" in politics, and "more referendums, public consultations, petitions and the like." The second piece is authored by the Labour MP Roy Hattersley wherein he argues against the adoption of primary elections (a la U.S.

presumably) as advocated by independent MP Martin Bell, because this would introduce an unhealthy element of personality politics into the British system. The proper emphasis should be on programmes of government and not celebrity. Hattersley states that part of the problem with the House of Commons is the idea that political ideas do not matter any longer. He offers that the person is less important than the policy, "we need more idealogically committed MPs, not fewer."

They appear to be contradicting each other, no? I'm not sure where I stand. Technology has revolutionised communication, access to information and therefore politics, I presume. But to abandon the emphasis on programmes over people, as Hattersley fears, would be a shame.