A book to set democratic alarm bells ringing
Martin Bell’s account of the expenses scandal has insights, but his willingness to embrace infringements upon parliamentary sovereignty in the name of restoring trust denigrates democracy.
British news headlines have been dominated for months by the MPs’ expenses scandal at Westminster. A large number of politicians, including the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, have been accused of over-claiming expenses for such trivialities as cleaning and gardening. In a few cases, the behaviour of politicians has been borderline fraudulent. The whole affair has brought parliament into disrepute.
As questions are now being asked about what to do next with the politicians who claimed beyond their due, former MP and journalist Martin Bell provides a useful recap of those early summer months when the scandal first hit the headlines in A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy. But the book is more than just a blow-by-blow account of who spent what; Bell also offers a number of recommendations on how he believes we can move on from the scandal, and ‘save our democracy’.
While Bell articulates the events surrounding the expenses scandal well, he seems, however, to side-step the key problem: MPs’ long-term crisis of purpose, of vocation, something that came to the fore in the expenses scandal but which has been an issue for years.
For a start, MPs have been marginalised, with power effectively shifting from the legislature to the executive. Prime minister Gordon Brown has even gone so far as to ignore parliament and has made a virtue of the appointment of non-elected figures to ministerial positions: for example, Mervyn Davies, then the chairman of Standard Chartered Bank, became a trade minister, and Peter Mandelson was brought back from Brussels, handed a peerage and is now deputy prime minister. Then there’s Prime Minister’s Questions, traditionally the chance for MPs to call the prime minister to account. The number of opportunities to grill the PM was reduced from two sessions per week to one by former PM Tony Blair in 1997, sending out a clear signal about the low importance that Blair, and his successor Brown, have placed on being answerable to the Commons.
Yet rather than tackling the diminished and confused role of MPs, Bell opts to deal with the expenses issue alone. In doing so, he suggests technical solutions to rebuilding the reputation of MPs. The problem is that these solutions further denigrate MPs’ role in society. Bell’s thesis is that MPs should respond to the public’s cynicism towards politicians and prove that they can be trusted. According to Bell, politicians can do this by accepting checks upon the sovereignty of parliament by way of an external expenses watchdog. He also encourages the election of independent candidates who can run for parliament precisely on their anti-sleaze, penny-pinching credentials. He argues that, taken together, such changes will save our democracy as people’s trust in the political system will be restored.
Bell details the way in which the expenses scandal saw an anti-politics, anti-politician mood ‘[sweeping] through the country’ which ‘became stronger and more coherent as the further misdemeanours of the fractious crew were exposed’, until ‘the people banded together and cried “Enough!”’. Reading rather too eagerly like an account of the English revolution, with comparisons to it drawn throughout, Bell endorses this new public mood as a sign that the British public have put their foot down in relation to greedy MPs.
For Bell, the expenses scandal presents an opportunity for democratic revival, as long as politicians are better policed in the future – even if that means infringing upon parliamentary sovereignty. Bell is aware of the consequences of diminishing the role of the Commons. In the book, he refers to a speech he once made in which he noted ‘the erosion of the authority, reputation and influence of the Commons’. However, after the expenses scandal he concluded ‘that the House of Commons was incapable of regulating itself’.
Bell is critical not only of individual MPs, but of party politics in general. He suggests that parties were partly responsible for the expenses scandal and makes the point that politicians who followed the party whip the most were often the politicians who spent more: ‘there was nothing they wouldn’t claim for or, when the division bell sounded, vote for’, he says. He acknowledges that ‘the parties are no longer vehicles for class interests. The arguments between them are less about principles than policies and priorities’. But he draws the conclusion that with the collapse of left and right, there should be a loosening of the party whips so that MPs are free to vote with their conscience. He argues that this would lead to representation by the best and brightest rather than the most docile.
Bell’s support for independents is a logical conclusion of his disdain for party politics. He devotes much space to extolling the virtues of independents as opponents of parliamentary corruption, ‘drawn into politics to help clean it up’, before concluding that they would ‘set an example and help hold the rest to certain standards of honesty’. In other words, an antidote to the isolated political class, the independents can restore trust in parliament in a way that party-aligned MPs are unable to.
As for the problem of expenses itself, Bell argues that MPs should make ‘modest claims’. Yet he ignores the reason for the exorbitant use of expense claims. It was not because MPs are greedy money-grubbers (though some no doubt are), but because they were too pusillanimous to demand higher pay. Using expenses to top up pay was accepted practice within parliament because nobody wanted to make a public case for a pay rise despite the fact that there is no reason why people who run the country should be on any less than those who run companies. Moreover, it is important to remember that, historically, the payment of MPs was considered a progressive cause, preventing politics from being an occupation solely for the well-off.
By failing to distinguish between current politicians and their role in parliament, Bell misses the opportunity to defend parliamentary sovereignty, and with it the sovereignty of the people that the House of Commons represents. Admittedly, defending parliamentary sovereignty is no easy task given MPs own inability to defend their role. Still, as a one-time MP himself, one wonders why Bell didn’t encourage his peers to stand their ground and fight the arbitrary meddling of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Instead, Bell believes that checks by this unelected, unaccountable body are necessary because politicians are simply ‘not to be trusted’, which is the same as saying that the sovereignty of the public’s representatives is not to be trusted.
While not trusting the people’s representatives, Bell is also bewitched by the largely fictional account of an angry, politically engaged public. He even goes so far as to compare Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army’s removal (and eventual beheading) of the king to the public response to the expenses scandal. This is a somewhat misleading analogy, given that the expenses scandal has resulted in more checks upon parliament, whereas the English revolution was precisely the reverse, an assertion of parliamentary sovereignty.
In supporting the plight of new independent candidates over the old tainted politicians, Bell seems to ignore the importance of partisanship. Where Bell is right to point out that the old party ideologies are defunct, he does not seem to think that we need a new type of mass politics that has the potential to change the direction of society as a whole. Instead, he embraces the consensual politics that exists between the main parties and politicians today. Disagreement and debate, the very stuff that creates political choice for the public and involves them in the direction society might take, is eschewed. Bell is content to advocate open primaries and independent candidates because then the public can choose who they like as a personality rather than what political vision they stand for.
Bell is happy to assess the worth of every politician on the basis of his stance on finances rather than political outlook. He does, however, spend one chapter, ‘The Honourable Scapegoat’, explaining why he thinks it’s awful that Labour MP Ian Gibson was ousted from parliament on the basis of his expenses. This is because Bell rates highly Gibson’s political contribution over the years. But even at this point, he does not conclude that political ability is more important than good finances.
Quick to assert that there has been a ‘British Revolution’ over the expenses scandal and that an ‘angry, united and determined’ public had reformed parliament, in his chapter ‘The Backlash’ Bell comments that ‘the great debate on the issue of the day was not between one set of politicians and another. It was between the political class and the people.’ In his introduction he goes so far as to remark that ‘the revolution will not be complete until all the rogues in the House are gone and public confidence in the MPs remaining is restored’. This account of events seems a little stretched. Far from a radical transformation, there seems to have been a further distancing of the public from politicians and politics – an evolution in public cynicism, not a revolution.
While there remains plenty of evidence for moral posturing over the expenses scandal, it is hard to find evidence of politicians who have been ‘chastened by the force of public anger’. Bell is right to point to local petitions and websites like BlearsMustGo – a reference to disgraced Labour MP and former cabinet minister Hazel Blears – as evidence of people’s frustration. But this is no public uproar. There has been no organised response to the expenses scandal by the public. There have been no demonstrations. The expenses scandal might have elicited manufactured outrage from the media class and a level of public disgust, but the idea that ‘the people will not stand for it’ blows public opinion on the matter out of proportion. In fact, there has been a greater push to reform from within parliament than outside of it.
Perhaps the anti-political, anti-sleaze conclusions of A Very British Revolution are not so very surprising. Indeed, it was Bell himself who, as a white-suited independent candidate, won the Tatton seat in the 1997 General Election from Tory MP Neil Hamilton, then embroiled in the cash-for-questions scandal. In doing so, he helped, along with his friends in the liberal media, to reframe politics in terms of sleaze, elevating the non-political issue of personal conduct over politics proper. Parliament and politics have been denigrated in the process, leaving ordinary voters not with the opportunity to vote on the parties’ political records, but on politicians’ personalities.
Bell’s book is a good account of the politicking that happened in wake of the expenses scandal and his recollections of his own experiences within parliament bring an insight to A Very British Revolution that other books on the scandal lack. The expenses scandal has created a dangerous situation, but one can’t help but think that Bell risks making it worse by endorsing anti-politics, infringements of parliamentary sovereignty and the elevation of independents. This is particularly sad because there is an opportunity, amidst the disarray of the old parties, to create a new generation of politicians with ideas that we might just be able to support.
A Very British Revolution: The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy, by Martin Bell, is published by Icon. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)