May 15, 2009 8:00 pm

How second-rate politicians brought Westminster low

The public mood in Britain this week has been beyond extraordinary and the only analogy that springs to mind is with the hysteria that took hold following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 12 years ago.

Then, the British turned on the royal family for its refusal to join in the display of emotional incontinence that they thought ought to characterise grief. The crowds assembled outside Westminster Abbey for the funeral were so worked up that if Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, had ended his eulogy with a call to arms, I am convinced they would have marched behind him to overthrow the monarchy.

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Matthew Engel

Now, the anger is directed at the political class after a week of non-stop revelations about the creative ways members of parliament have charged taxpayers for everything from their mortgages to their garden manure. The Daily Mail’s front page on Friday resembled a Wild West wanted poster, featuring the MPs facing some of the most damaging allegations over their expenses. “BRING THEM TO JUSTICE,” it yelled.

The studio audience for that other barometer of Middle England, the BBC television programme Question Time, savaged the three politicians on the panel on Thursday night. And if someone in the hall eloquent enough had grabbed the microphone and demanded a march on parliament, the rest, I swear, would have fallen in line.

Except that they were in Grimsby, which is a long way from London. It was a rainy night, and this mood is fickle. In 1997, everyone forgot what it was they were angry about and quickly resumed their normal position of obsequiousness towards the sovereign. The putative marchers of Grimsby would have rushed outside, sniffed the air, asked for half an hour’s grace to go home, fetch their mackintoshes and make a Thermos of tea, and then gone to bed instead.

But the general anger will not dissipate without some kind of catharsis. In 1997, the funeral did its job; it was an end, not a beginning. The sensible way out of this crisis would be for the main party leaders to decide that mutual interest now outweighed self-interest, and then cobble together a grand-sounding deal so that they can stop fuelling the argument by yapping about it.

The more likely outcome is that things will rumble on until the European elections on June 4, when the far-right British National party may win seats. Then the voters – not the politicians – would start to repent and dribble back to the conventional parties for fear of the alternative.

The House of Commons expenses regime, as it has existed, does not in itself constitute a grand scandal. It has bred dozens – maybe hundreds – of individual scandalettes in which MPs have made bad decisions ranging from the politically unwise to the borderline fraudulent. As can happen in enclosed institutions – schools, hospitals, companies of all kinds including newspapers – an internal culture has grown up that has lost its connection with both morality and reality. But what has been truly shocking has been the littleness of it all. And this is the scandal at the heart of British politics.

For a century or more, Britain has lost power at the top end, becoming far less influential in the world. To combat that, it reluctantly joined what it thought was the Common Market, which turned into the European Union. Thus, Britain found itself subject to direction from Brussels.

At the same time, Westminster sucked power from below, reducing local government to a cipher. But this extra authority went to the executive – not the legislature. Deprived of serious influence on events, backbench MPs mutated into glorified councillors themselves, sorting out their constituents’ visa problems and leaky drainpipes. Over-whipped, overworked and under-resourced, they became less and less recognisable as genuine parliamentarians.

French députés are, by tradition, usually mayors as well and thus local potentates in their own right. Washington politicians have immense influence on legislation and the central scandal of US politics is that they can maintain their position only by raking in money from special interests. We will see the effects of this as the energy industry calls in favours from its client politicians to stave off action on climate change.

Now that will actually affect the future of the planet. British MPs are hardly worth bribing and the creative accountancy over payments for second homes by Westminster MPs will affect nothing, except Britain’s estimation of its politicians and their own sense of self-worth. Both of these were already low enough.

The House of Commons used to be filled with men of renown. Sir Christopher Wren was an MP. So was Sir Isaac Newton – and John Stuart Mill. Sitting in the Commons gallery the other day, I looked around trying to find a single figure who had achieved anything of note in any field except politics. There was William Hague (Conservative), who has written a couple of decent biographies. I spotted Derek Wyatt (Labour), who once played rugby for England. I looked in vain for Sir Menzies Campbell (Liberal Democrat), who ran in the 1964 Olympics. And then I was struggling.

The former chief executive of Asda, Archie Norman, became an MP and spent eight years looking utterly miserable. It has become a second-rate job attracting a great many second-rate people, who are not even that skilful at fiddling their expenses. That is the scandal.

matthew.engel@ft.com

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