Battle in Print: Expenses, the loss of trust and why self-regulation's what we need

Angus Kennedy, 27 October 2009

It is a commonplace among media commentators on the ongoing expenses scandal that it is driven by a very real and deep public anger and a contempt for politicians. And that this anger is forcing politicians, however reluctantly, to clean up their act and submit themselves to external regulation. I wondered if the story could equally be told the other way round: in terms of the anger of the political class at the ongoing need to rely on a disengaged public for their votes. As driven by their unprecedented lack of political vision and by their deep-rooted contempt for ordinary people. Martin Bell thought not.

Angus Kennedy: One of the things that comes across very strongly at the beginning of the book is your expression of people’s anger at the expenses scandal. You refer to Cromwell’s purging of the Rump Parliament… the lynch mob atmosphere on Question Time, you wrote the book very quickly at the time, in ten weeks or so, do you believe that anger is still there now?

Martin Bell: I believe so, I think it’s really touch and go. It’s very difficult to know because we are coming towards the end of an 82 day parliamentary recess at a time when many MPs have apparently been unwilling to show their faces in their own constituencies, reluctant to go to Tesco in case someone asks them who’s paying for it. I think some of them will hope by the time they return it will have calmed down and they can go back to business as usual. The anger was very real: they have felt it on the doorstep when they go canvassing and so on. I’ve never known a time when everyone is talking politics. I may be wrong but I think it’s still there.

It’s happened before though; there seem to be regular expressions of anti-sleaze, of popular anger that pop up from time to time. How significant are they really?

I was the beneficiary of one of them in 1997. But I think the scale is different, we were talking then about two dozen MPs, all Tories as it happened: they all left in one way or another, all except Neil Hamilton and he was deposed. I think this is more serious because this is as it were the entire political class… I think it’s the scale that makes this different and the character of it. The phantom mortgages: this is something that if it had happened in a private company or a public corporation; I mean not only would the person involved be straight out of the door but the police would be involved from the start. There are also some practices so distasteful honestly. I mean the idea that an MP because you’re elected to Parliament that you can justify having the taxpayer pay your grocery bills - the idea would never have occurred to me. Completely shameless. I never knew about it.

Bell believes the root of the problem is bad behaviour on the part of MPs, bad behaviour not exhibited by the corporate sector. Well, presumably he means that part of it now schooled in corporate social responsibility, and not Enron or Fred Godwin or… I could go on but no matter. Parliament is not Tesco, however, no matter how much people might feel that Sir Terry Leahy might do a better job of running the country than Gordon Brown. The crucial difference is that we elect our MPs and we elect them to represent our interests. This is not necessarily the same thing as electing them on the basis that they are best qualified to run the country, that they are the most skilled managers around. To compare how an elected parliament does and should operate to a private corporation is a dangerous road to go down. We should be guided in our choice of MP by the degree to which we think their self-interest encompasses our own: not by the degree that they pretend to be motivated purely by altruism.

It has been the political class itself that has reduced politics to the basis of behaviour, character and personality. They presume to condemn us as incompetent parents, closet racists, binge drinkers, compulsive over-eaters: as antisocial problems that must be regulated and policed. They are then furious to have their own bad behaviour revealed through the expenses scandal. Doubly so I imagine because in their contempt for us they never believed that they would get called on it. Triply so because it was the Telegraph that broke elite ranks to call it.

Let’s talk about that question of political direction and political leadership because the title of the book, A Very British Revolution, posed a question for me - and it relates to the anger question, where did it come from - is this scandal and how it’s been playing out driven by the anger of ordinary people, or does it reflect a lack of vision, almost the implosion of the political class? Is it then any wonder that this is reflected in people asking the ‘what are you for’ question?

They came in on that platform, the promise to clean things up and then they actually ignored it as an issue. If you look at the way that Alistair Graham’s Committee on Standards in Public Life was completely sidelined by Tony Blair and I quote Graham in the book saying that his greatest regret was his failure to convince the Prime Minister to put ethical thinking and ethical behaviour at the centre of his agenda. But my first choice for a title was ‘Swindlers’ List’, which I preferred but my publishers thought it was too jokey. But A Very British Revolution is accurate: we haven’t had a political revolution since the Civil War, since the Rump Parliament was thrown out and so on. We’ve always preferred evolution to revolution. And we maybe… the revolution has only kind of half happened. The chapter about what happened to the Parliament Standards Bill and its passage through Parliament in the month before the recess, so many of its teeth were drawn, Parliament still retains the essential right of self-regulation.

The idea that Parliament can or should be self-regulating has very limited support these days. Bell argues that the clean-up of public life demanded by the expenses scandal and our loss of trust in politicians will not be complete until Parliament loses that right. His suggestion that self-regulation precludes ethical behaviour is strikingly new, however: ethical behaviour was once seen as more or less equating to self-regulation, self-control. He prefer some system of other-regulation, maybe to be proposed by the Kelly commission on parliamentary standards, but certainly an independent, quasi-judicial system: one that would have the power to discipline those naughty schoolchildren in the House of Commons.

The parliamentary sovereignty question, how important is that to you: do you see any dangers in Parliament being policed in some sense?

I actually share the view of Peter Oborne, that he’d always been in favour of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty but when he saw what these people had been doing, the answer was that they’re not to be trusted. I was for three and a half years on the Standards and Privileges Committee so I saw the regulatory machinery in action and some members of that committee left their party allegiances at the committee room door and others did not… My experience is that the House of Commons cannot be trusted to police itself.

Politicians today, it seems to me, actually share this view: they don’t trust themselves anymore either. Which is why Tom Legg is called in to adjudicate on what expenses are allowable and which are not, to decide in retrospect how politicians should have interpreted the rules on expenses, rather than Parliament devising a new system themselves and putting it to the public. Which is why Gordon Brown ducked the Al-Megrahi affair: terrified lest someone accuse him of acting in Britain’s self-serving foreign policy interests. This lack of trust in self rests on a feeling that we are, as individuals, bound to follow our narrow and greedy self-interest. We need external standards to regulate how we live because without them we would engage in a war of all against all, or so the thinking goes. Outside Westminster, the attacks on bankers’ bonuses follow exactly the same logic: we can’t trust bankers with our money. They must be regulated. We can’t trust adults with children: they might just be secret abusers. Cue CRB checks.

When we give up, as adults, on trust in ourselves, our judgments, opinions and capabilities, then we move someone else in loco parentis or at least create a vacancy for an adult to regulate us on our behalf. That vacancy can be filled by a paternalistic guardian as well as it can be by a tyrannical patriarch, but the relationship between untrusting-self and regulating-other is nonetheless one of authority. The problem and the danger is that, if we lose trust in parliament’s ability to self-regulate, we simultaneously, on the back stroke as it were, lose trust in ourselves: the electorate that put the MPs in place. And we risk them being replaced with external regulators that we won’t be able to vote for and are accountable to no one.

This is a vicious ‘circle of trust’. Politicians have lost trust in themselves because they are no longer part of mass party political organisations with millions of active voters behind them. They lose sight of what they are for. But rather than create a new sense of what they are for, they reach out, cravenly, to us to tell them what they are about. They outsource their political programmes to us in the form of open primaries. You decide what we stand for. No wonder we don’t trust them back. But it’s an expensive option to let them sacrifice politics on the altar of public opinion. There is a real danger here that New Tory will go even further in this direction than New Labour.

You seem to be supportive of David Cameron’s ‘nerve’ I think you call it, his willingness to turn his party in an anti-politics direction. Which is a word you seem to use approvingly ... but when I see the word ‘anti-politics’ I worry… Do you think there is any danger in the Tories going even further down the ‘bad’ side of the anti-political route than New Labour ever did? I’m thinking here specifically of Chloe Smith campaigning on a ‘no Westminster’ ticket, campaigning on the fact that ‘I’m nice’.

Actually she’s quite a typical member of the political class, isn’t she Chloe Smith? I mean she hasn’t done much in life. But certainly on the Conservative side there’s a felt need at least to appear to be practicing a different kind of politics and you see this in the Totnes primary. I do think, and I think everyone agrees on this and there’s a new book out by Anthony Seldon called Trust, that we have to find a way of raising the calibre of MPs. We have to have the best of British in Parliament and we just don’t.

Is there a danger that we are going to get the cleanest of British in Parliament though rather than the best? Sometimes the best can be, you know, interesting people who may not be the cleanest and nicest and most easily auditable. I would be willing to forgive my representatives a few peccadilloes if they were competent, inspiring and making change. But with the ‘honest politics’ slogans of David Cameron I wonder if we the electorate will end up doing nothing more than auditing their behaviour, checking that their ethics are in line.

This is the old argument about fools and knaves isn’t it? It applies greatly in Irish politics: the contrast with Garret FitzGerald and Charlie Haughey who was a real rogue: he may be a wrong ‘un but he’s a good ‘un. I think what we need is a measure of competence and a measure of integrity and they shouldn’t rule each other out. No, I don’t want to see any dodgy characters in the House of Commons, however gifted they are.

It’s a fairly low bar to set for a politician: some competence; some integrity; not too much of either. That’s bad enough but what’s worse is the absence of politics, reducing it to something so easily measured to external standards. Did he balance the budget? Were her fingers in the till? What about what they believe in? What about passion and hope for the future and arguments to get us there? Not to whitewash the politicians of yesterday but are we losing something by opening up Parliament to a new generation of the squeaky clean? The transparent and see-through?

You call for new blood to enter Parliament but is that an unqualified good? Cameron is likely to form the next government with only three people with any ministerial experience in his Shadow Cabinet.

It’s not an unqualified good. I also find it interesting that so many of the MPs that have been forced to disappear, especially on the Conservative side, had reputations as very good constituency members. I remember Sir Peter Viggers not for the duck pond but for his doughty defence of the Defence Medical Services and the Military Hospitals because he had one in Gosport. And Nick Winterton: Mr Macclesfield from start to finish. But they were… they did things that were quite incredible.

Transparency is one of those everywhere words at the moment but I always get suspicious when people want to be more and more transparent… Am I being perverse or is there any danger that this just might be fuelling suspicion of politics in the British public?

That’s a very Institute of Ideas idea if I may say so. You are the only people in the country whose response to the scandal could be to say, can we have a few more rogues please?

One wonders how Winston Churchill might fare today, I’m sure he would fall foul of some committee pretty quickly.

Oh sure. He was actually a paid advocate for BP. You know, we live in the times that we do, where there are these rules in place, and MPs who fall foul of them must expect to pay the penalty.

But what I wonder is, if everything has to be above board, exactly as it seems, that we sacrifice a certain depth and complexity, it becomes boring and the last thing we need at the moment is boring politics, we don’t need the politics of accountancy, we need exciting politics and that might actually be something that could really revive democracy.

I don’t see any contradiction between exciting politics and clean politics. I want politicians in politics for what they can put into it, not for what they can get out of it.

That is the politics of altruism, of self-lessness, of self-interest held in denial. David Cameron calls for acts of ‘atonement’ and Tory MP Eleanor Laing duly responds: paying back £25,000 in expenses that the Legg audit had cleared her of. You could see this as merely a cynical bribe to the electorate - and it has that character - but it is more of a sacrificial offering: a manifestation of humility; a giving away of worldly goods in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s eye of the needle politics. As Brendan O’Neill has observed in spiked: ‘By broadening out the expenses agenda so that virtually every MP is now seen as having sinned against decency, Legg has let loose the dogs of accountancy against what are seen as the grubby, self-interested inhabitants of parliament today’.

Politicians, aware of the dangers of appearing special, compete these days to be as ‘ordinary’ as they can, in a kind of race to the bottom. David Cameron, despite his millions, is just an ‘ordinary bloke’. They all understand and feel and emote with us. Apparently. They reach out for the blessings of our children, endlessly appearing in schools, searching for youth engagement schemes: the halo of the innocence of youth around them.

In terms of the distance that does exist, you call it alienation, between the people and politicians, government, how do you see that gap being narrowed, or bridged?

I think the arrival of the new MPs will help, I think the setting of clear rules about allowances and the enforcement of them, there is a huge responsibility lying on the members of the Standards and Privileges Committee… I mean just about every other profession goes to outside regulation in some form. Or some sort of quasi judicial process. Except politicians and I think this is part of the universal complaint about them that they live in a world of their own. They set their rules, they police their rules, the most serious penalty in the last twenty years I think has been the suspension of an MP for a month.

There is real hostility to the idea that politicians are in any sense special, that they are in any way extraordinary people, leaders, that they are deserving of any particular respect. Obviously this is understandable in the sense that they have done very little recently to earn any such respect. That alone, however, is not enough to explain the desire to break down the walls of that special world our elected representatives inhabit. After all, we still retain the ability to simply replace them with other MPs, ones whose politics we like better and it is not obviously in our interests to strip MPs of their powers (self-regulation being a key one) if they are ever to be effective at representing those interests.

This is part of a much more widespread hostility in contemporary society to any person or group of people, not just politicians, who presume to know, who dare to think themselves special. To set yourself up above other people in terms of your expert knowledge or judgment or whatever it may be is too easily dismissed as unacceptably arrogant today. From the crisis of authority in academia to the idea that we must respect points of view we very much disagree with, there is a sense that self-regulation is old-fashioned, stiff upper lipped, Gary Cooperesque. That it smacks of self-repression, emotional shallowness and dangerous hidden depths. In the place of self-regulation and specialness we are offered the ordinary and the transparent. We are not offered real debate or real choice.

Why is it that you think that the substantive political debates about the very real political choices that we need to make as a society, what kind of economy do we want to have, do we want to be involved in Afghanistan or Iraq, what kind of society more generally do we want to live in, why don’t you think those are the meat and the heart of politics at the moment?

I suppose, yes, those are the debates that matter… I think its an effect of the political class having separated itself from the people. They represent us but they are not representative of us.

It’s a logical extension of the drive to engage with our concerns, that patronising and contemptuous concern to appear to relate to us. The next step is to be us and not to stand for us. Dominic Lawson, writing in the The Sunday Times, recommends that the committee on standards in public life ‘make only one simple suggestion - that MPs, constitutionally sovereign though they may be, are treated just like the rest of us in self-employment, and take their chances with HM Revenue & Customs’. Think that through: our elected representatives should be entitled to no more protection from Her Majesty’s state apparatus than any of us.

The Telegraph agrees: ‘what a healthy signal it would send if members of Parliament were treated in the same way as the people who elect them.’ Donald Hirsch, writing in the Guardian, wonders if MP’s should not receive ‘basic’ allowances of the rent of a one-bed flat in their constituency and £18 a week to cover household expenditure. This is enough, apparently, to provide ‘a minimum acceptable standard of living for Britain today’. It’s an idea designed to ‘start to bridge the perceived gap between MPs’ lifestyles and those of their constituents struggling through the recession’: bringing MPs down to this minimum level rather than raising up those who are struggling. Not a very inspiring or progressive view of social solidarity. In my book people would be happy to see MPs well rewarded if they were fighting to improve the living standards of all rather than giving up and donning hair shirts.

But we won’t find this new political austerity any less irksome. Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, noting the willingness of the Tories to risk unpopularity with promises of cuts, wondered if ‘the perverse logic at work here is that when voters assume politicians are motivated solely by self-interest, the only way to shake that belief is for a politician to act against his self-interest’. If we give up on the idea that politicians self-interest might be capable of being squared with our own: then we might just end up with politics that are literally in no one’s interest.

Nor should we believe that they really want to be like us. With their contempt comes a fair bit of fear too. Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail thunders that: ‘They [MPs] believe they can carry on with their old arrogance, greed and thieving ways. The truth is that this makes this autumn a very dangerous moment for British democracy. As unemployment rises, and the country’s economic problems grow, our legislators continue to believe that they live in a privileged cocoon, and that they are exempt from the honourable standards that apply to decent people. Parliament’s reputation, already at rock bottom, can hardly fall lower, meaning that sinister parties of the far Right and Left may benefit from the collapse of our greatest national institution.’

The truth is in here somewhere. We are so angry apparently at our MPs that, mad with rage, we are liable to fall into the hands of evil extremists. The truth of course is that the contempt expressed is not ours but theirs. They have such a low view of us that they believe that reform of the trappings and procedures of parliament, it’s form, can make us see them as clean and worthy. Imagining that we will be so dazzled by their persil whites that we are fail to spot their hands bloody with foreign wars, the collapse of the economy, vicious immigration polices, the destruction of education, even of knowledge itself.

I take a very simplistic view, that if MPs want to be trusted more they can always try behaving better.

Independence, self-regulation and parliamentary sovereignty - hard won gains - are not things to be given up in the name of good behaviour. We need them too much. We cannot afford to have politics regulated by accountants, auditors and unelected law lords. The politics of sleaze risk turning into the politics of clean but the trajectory will remain the same. Namely, the destruction of political substance and content. Of politics itself. As Nick Clegg sacrifices fairness and the rule of law to ‘democracy’, as politicians cower supinely before the supposed anger of the people, we do well to remember that is it not in our interests to try to modify people’s behaviour with new codes of conduct, new regulations and new procedures. It’s an authoritarian solution that weakens our status as political subjects, as agents of change. And one that does nothing to rebuild trust. That must be predicated on believing that people are acting the way that they actually want to and not because they are forced into it by rules.

Substance, substance, substance: that’s what we need. Not an obsession with form - clean politics will mean we all grow thin on rations. We don’t have to lament the loss of fat rogues or the mass parties of the past. In fact it’s an opportunity for us if taken correctly. A chance to create a new human centred, self-interested and, yes, greedy politics. As Martin Bell said in the interview, it is ironic that, at a time when the failures of capitalism are so obviously on show for all to see, no one can come up with an alternative.

Let’s try regulating ourselves, standing up for what we believe in: if we don’t, someone else will. In our best interests. On our behalf. To give Bell the last word: ‘it is not their Parliament: it is our Parliament’.

Author

Angus is a Battle of Ideas committee member, has written for spiked, and reviewed for Culture Wars.

References

• Martin Bell, A Very British Revolution, Icon Book Ltd, 2009
• Sam Coates and Tom Baldwin, ‘Tory MP Eleanor Laing repays £25,000 expenses despite being cleared’, The Times, 15 October 2009
• Jonathan Freedland, ‘The bonds of trust have frayed away. Now masochism is the best strategy’, Guardian Comment is free, 13 October 2009
• Donald Hirsch, ‘Expenses: it’s back to basics’, Guardian Comment is free, 12 October 2009
• Dominic Lawson, ‘Here’s an idea: let the taxman loose on MPs’, The Sunday Times, 18 October 2009
• Peter Oborne, ‘With the connivance of this wretched new Speaker, MPs are trying to destroy an honest man for daring to expose their greed’, Daily Mail, 14 October 2009
• Brendan O’Neill, ‘The self-destruction of the House of Commons’, spiked, 15 October 2009
• Telegraph View, ‘MP’s expenses: just when we thought they couldn’t sink lower…’, Telegraph, 13 October 2009

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