Friday, 15 May 2009

From Salem to Madame Guillotine..

In 1692, a series of notorious witch "trials" were held in Salem - basically, those who were accused were considered guilty unless proven innocent. The concept of a witch-hunt survives to this day.

In 1789, the mob took control of Paris and the Revolution saw the aristocrats dragged from their fine houses and chateaux and subjected to revolutionary justice which generally involved a very sharp blade and a neck.

The revelations regarding expenses claimed by MPs has descended from farce to hysterical witch-hunt and the reaction of the audience to the politicians on last night's Question Time illustrates the enormous damage the activities of a relatively few MPs have wrought on the whole reputation of Parliament and politics.

The expenses revelations claimed their first Ministerial victim with the resignation of Shahid Malik earlier this afternoon. I thought Malik had put up a robust defence of his position this morning and, in truth, the expenses he claimed were pretty trivial but he made the mistake of misreading the public mood. The electorate are angry and want to see contrition, not defence, from their politicians. To be honest, the case for the defence isn't getting a hearing in the current febrile atmosphere.

There is talk of deselection for some of the worst offenders but, as I reminded this morning, there was similar anger in 1990 against Tory MPs who had voted against Mrs Thatcher but nothing much came of it. I suspect one or two MPs may decide not to contest the next election but I don't envisage much more.

So, where does that leave us once the hysteria has died down and rational debate can return ?

1) There are those who have used this to argue that only a change of Government can restore public confidence in politicians. I don't believe this at all and the proponents of this idea are mainly Tory activists who can be safely ignored.

2) We cannot wait for Sir Christopher Kelly's committee to produce a report in the Autumn. There are a number of good ideas, especially from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative sides which ought to be considered now. Clearly, MPs will be under pressure to recompense for some of the more implausible expenses and if anything has occurred which requires Police investigation, that will be taken on in the appropriate manner.

3) Speaker Michael Martin's authority has been completely undermined. He has presided over a collapsing and inadequate system and has done nothing to instigate reform. There are a number of possible alternatives but Martin should do the honourable thing and go now.

4) I am strongly of the view that while the argument for fixed-term Parliaments may not have been made, there is a growing argument for term limitations on MPs. Douglas Hogg, for example, has been an MP since 1979 - that's 30 years of living in the Westminster bubble. It may well be that the uniqueness of that existence has left MPs of all parties unprepared for the ferocity of the public backlash to the expenses revelations.

There's an argument that limiting incumbency to three Parliaments means there is a healthy churn of MPs bringing new ideas and new thoughts in to Westminster. A "safe seat for life" would disappear - it would be at most 15 years before mandatory deselection. More contests and churn. backed up by a transparent and well-policed system of maintaining the ability of MPs to do the work for which they have been elected could yet encourage more people to get involved.

Anyway, the witch hunt goes on, the activists knit by the tumbril and our democracy wallows in its own crapulence.

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