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Can Britain's Parliament Redeem Itself?

  • John O'Sullivan

Can the House of Commons redeem itself in the eyes of these disappointed lovers -- or even in the eyes of the British themselves?

Can the House of Commons redeem itself in the eyes of these disappointed lovers -- or even in the eyes of the British themselves?

Many people outside Britain have been gloating over the grave embarrassment of the expenses scandal in the British Parliament. That is certainly true -- I've heard some of them gloating -- but it doesn't seem to be the whole truth.

Several people have approached me to express sorrow over the scandal. None of them were Brits -- the Brits feel shame rather than sorrow about it. Some of them belonged to that most cynical and world-weary trade -- journalism. Surely journalists couldn't be surprised by corruption in politics?

So why did they feel so sad about the fact that British members of parliament had helped themselves to thousands of pounds of taxpayer money for improper expenses? Well, it turns out that even the most cynical person among us has ideals -- and not just ideals, but also an ideal.

To many people outside Britain, the British House of Commons has been an ideal of democracy. It was how democratic bodies are supposed to be -- vigorous in debate, fair in its judgments, and honest in its conduct. And the fact that so many MPs seem to have been dishonest has been a deep disappointment as well as a shock.

Can the House of Commons redeem itself in the eyes of these disappointed lovers -- or even in the eyes of the British themselves? Well, perhaps, but not by making excuses. True, Britain scores well -- that is very low -- on all the international lists of corruption. True also, some MPs genuinely felt these payments were meant to be simple additions to a low salary disguised as expenses. But that's how corruption works. Excuses disguise the real nature of our actions from ourselves as well as from others.

No excuse, however, can now disguise the fact that this scandal is greater than any other since 1945. First, it involved not a few scattered "bad hats" but a very large number of MPs in all parties. Second, the parliamentary authorities -- notably a body called the Fees Office -- connived in the payment of unjustified expenses. One might even argue that they helped to corrupt MPs by advising them that such expenses were legitimate. Third, the speaker sought to defend these grave abuses by using the courts to suppress information about them. The scandal broke because he failed.

Further details of the scandal continued to dribble out in this week's "Daily Telegraph": "One Tory MP spent 17,000 pounds over four years on various household items including four beds and mattresses, five tables, two ironing boards, two vacuum cleaners, five sets of towels and three kettles. Three Labour cabinet ministers failed to pay capital gains tax on the sale of their homes."

With every such story, the reputation of British democracy took a hit.

Yet no less a parliamentarian than Winston Churchill once said: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried." He knew that the ultimate test of a democracy is not that it avoids scandals (which are inevitable from time to time) but how it handles them. So how is the Mother of Parliaments doing?

MPs have already taken some steps toward reforming abuses. They have forced the speaker -- the single most important parliamentary official, on the same level as a senior cabinet minister -- to resign from office. The last time a speaker was driven from office was in 1695 -- for taking bribes, as it happens. So this was a historic step -- but not enough.

MPs are now talking about placing parliament under the control of some external regulator. Prime Minister Gordon Brown says parliament can no longer be run like "a gentleman's club."

A lot of commentators have taken up this theme, but it's a pretty obvious attempt to shift the blame politically. It hints that the scandal is really the fault of stuffy, old-fashioned, establishment types in medieval uniform -- parliament's so-called "men in tights" such as Black Rod -- rather than of people like Brown.

In fact, parliament was increasingly subject to the government and to the front-bench establishments in this scandal. The gentlemanly "men in tights" took orders from the pragmatic "men in grey suits." Old parliamentary standards took second place to modern political conveniences such as a "relaxed" regime of expenses.

Subjecting parliament to an external regulator would make this problem worse. It would weaken parliament and strengthen the executive by treating MPs as if they are errant children. It is constitutionally doubtful if a sovereign parliament can be governed by a civil servant. Besides, reform should go in the other direction: parliament needs to regain power over itself from the executive.

But MPs will only be trusted to govern themselves again in conditions of far greater "transparency." If they were compelled to reveal all forms of income, the media would compel them to act like the gentlemen they used to be. So we need to let daylight in to restore parliamentary tradition.

These and other changes are being seriously debated. Major reforms will certainly be adopted. But what MPs have not yet faced up to is that the voters want more than reform. They want the wholesale sacking of MPs found to have behaved corruptly.

Some MPs have indeed announced their resignations. Some have been sacked by their political leaders. Scotland Yard is examining possible charges of fraud. Some MPs may well go to prison.

As yet, however, most are clinging to their seats -- with the result that public anger is still unslaked.

Unless the Labour and Tory leaders, Brown and David Cameron, force many more resignations, the voters will almost certainly elect MPs very different from those now in Westminster. In the least bad system of government called democracy, however, reform and renewal are ultimately the responsibility of the voters.

John O'Sullivan is executive editor at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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