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Timing is everything

June 22nd, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · No Comments · Politics

Spare a thought for a chap called Nicholas Allen.  On March 31st he drafted a paper for the annual conference of the Political Studies Association in April this year.  The paper was called British parliamentary misconduct in the early twenty-first century.  That must have been like presenting a paper about famous shipwrecks in March 1912, or a paper called warfare in the twentieth century in August 1939.Mind you, Mr. Allen may have been overtaken by events, but the timing of his paper makes it very interesting reading.  In many cases he says the same thing that lots of other people are saying now, but he was saying it without the benefit of hindsight – although without knowledge of the impending Telegraph-led shitstorm means that he tends towards understatement more than current commentators with their apocalyptic pronouncements. For example:

More generally, misconduct may divert attention away from more pressing matters of public policy.  It may even undermine public confidence in political institutions or the wider political system.

Particularly interesting is when, around pages 30/31 he talks about the length of service of MPs who have been subject to an adverse report from the Standards & Privileges Committee.  You might have expected most to be relative newcomers getting caught out by the complicated and sometimes arcane rules, but in fact most had at least ten years’ service. The author comments:

The implications of this finding are potentially important.  Research conducted in the 1980s suggested that, through exposure to the prevailing parliamentary culture, some MPs tend to follow the motto: ‘if it’s not expressly prohibited then it’s acceptable’.  Long service in public office may lead to what one scholar terms ‘cognitive ethical failure’, where individuals actively believe themselves exempt from certain moral requirements.

The average MP is unlikely to be corrupted by actual power, but some MPs may well be corrupted by status.

Ammunition for those who are calling for MPs (and other politicians?) to have limited terms of office.  Not sure that is necessary, but it does go some way to explaining why so many MPs are caught up in the current scandal.  Further explaination comes a few pages later, after stating that “the abuse of allowances has long been one of Westminster’s worst kept secrets”:

The upshot of this state of affairs is an arguably dishonest system of allowances and pay that breaches the principles of fairness and accountability.  MPs are incentivised to break the spirit if not the letter of institutional rules: and their behaviour almost certainly reduces public confidence in their actions and in the integrity of Parliament.

Given the unfortunate circumstances of coming out immediately before the scale of abuse became public, I think the paper stands up very well.  The author would be well within his rights to wave it about, shouting “told you so”.  Personally I think the whole thing attracts more authority for being written before the event – anybody can say there is a systemic failure in parliament now, but this was an examination of possible institutional corruption before that was the fashionable opinion.

As for why we got into such a mess in the first place, there are a couple of clues to one possible contributory factor early on in the paper:

Certain rules are obviously more significant than others, and not all have a direct bearing on legislators’ ethical responsibilities.  Some rules, such as those prohibiting the receipt of large gifts, relate clearly and directly to the integrity of the legislative process; others, such as those governing orderly conduct in the chamber, do not.

Combined with…

The principle of independence was institutionally sacrosanct, but parliamentary etiquette was more rigorously enforced.

This sums up something I have thought for a long time, that parliament spends too much time with its priorities wrong, making sure that archaic forms of address and pseudo-traditions are followed.  It sometimes feels like it is more important to wear a tie and know when to refer to “my honorable friend”, “my honourable and learned friend” or “the member for Brentford Triangle” than to not give your wife a £30k salary for doing bugger all or to claim for servants’ quarters as a necessary expense.

A perfect example is that an MP can’t just resign.  Instead they take the Chiltern Hundreds or get appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead.  Such obscurities just serve to make Parliament less accessible to the public, but also to any prospective MPs.  It is almost designed to put off normal people, ensuring that the place continues to be dominated by people steeped in such nonsense.

I have no axe to grind as far as speakers are concerned, but Michael Martin always seemed to incline towards being a protector of the traditions above anything else.  Maybe the new bloke will a bit more 21st Century. Even dragging the place into the 20th century would be a start.


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