A dark day for Parliament. A new dawn for democracy?
Michael Brown, an MP for 18 years, reflects on a historic day at Westminster
Wednesday 20 May 2009
Every so often, parliamentary history is made that subsequently shapes the centuries ahead. The signing of Magna Carta still has implications for our democracy. The events surrounding Charles I and the Civil War live on today as the monarchy bows to the will of the House of Commons when, at the State Opening, the doors of the Commons are slammed shut as Black Rod approaches. The next speaker may have such a chance to lead a historic reform of our tarnished democracy.
The developments of the past two weeks, culminating in yesterday's announcement by the Speaker, will have repercussions down the centuries. Future A-level history students will be answering questions not only about the Long Parliament and the Rump Parliament, but also about the "Moat" Parliament (otherwise perhaps known as the "Manure" Parliament) presided over by Speaker Martin – the first Speaker to be forcibly removed from office in 300 years. His name will be as familiar to future historians - for the wrong reasons - as Speaker Lenthall was in the 17th century.
That Mr Martin had to go became inevitable. He has been identified as the commander-in-chief and defender of the culture of Commons secrecy and corruption. His resistance to the Freedom of Information Act made matters worse. But the scenes witnessed in the last few days made me weep. I have no brief for Mr Martin but the manner of his demise is tragic. Never, ever, in my 18 years under Speaker Thomas, Speaker Weatherill or Speaker Betty Boothroyd did I see such scenes of open rebellion. The mere swish of Betty's gown as she admonished a recalcitrant MP was enough to bring order. All three commanded instant respect, in and out of Parliament, and it is a crying shame that Mr Martin - a personally decent and kindly cove - should have been so badly advised.
Of course Mr Martin was not up to the job - that was precisely why he was chosen in 2000 - when Labour had over 400 MPs. This was the time when Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were neutering the Commons and when Betty Boothroyd was trying, heroically, to defend the Commons from the New Labour reign of terror. But they wanted a pliant stooge. So instead of following convention and allowing a Tory to be nominated, the Labour whips' organised for Mr Martin.
But all that is over. Mr Martin is over, Mr Blair is over and Gordon Brown is nearly over. A new era may be upon us. While Mr Brown belatedly recognised this new era with his hasty announcement of a system of independent adjudication of MPs pay and rations (which he put before other party leaders at the Speaker's meeting yesterday afternoon) he still fails to recognise that the people want retribution. At his press conference He made much of disciplining wayward Labour MPs, yet Elliot Morley and David Chaytor merely remain suspended. (Incredibly, Mr Morley continues to chair a select committee for which he receives an additional £20,000 on top of his salary.) But Mr Brown could have announced their expulsion.
The Prime Minister was at his worst as he promised that any Labour MP who had broken the rules would be de-selected, yet he made the lawyerly distinction that Hazel Blears was within the rules – even though he disapproved of her actions. Instead of promising reviews, committees, inquiries and commissions a few sackings would carry more conviction.
But the people want revenge against the MPs who have defrauded them out of their taxes to pay for the outrageous expenses claims. Voters want prosecution, de-selection, dismissal, defeat and defenestration. (Already Douglas Hogg is to stand down.) But they also want rejuvenation - a new Speaker, a new Parliament - and a new electoral system based on open democracy.
After the farce of Mr Martin's original election there are new rules - involving a secret ballot for the election of the new Speaker. There is still a majority of Labour MPs - some of whom might be tempted to follow"party" line. Similarly Tories might coalesce around a single candidate. Runners and riders will probably include Sir Alan Haselhurst, Mr Martin's deputy. But he is in trouble over gardening expenses. Sir George Young, an Old Etonian Tory, will have another try but he is simply too establishment. Sir Menzies Campbell might have had a chance before his £10,000 flat renovation became public.
But if constitutional reform is the voters' clarion cry - including electoral reform - then MPs should consider candidates regardless of party labels and regardless of the previous convention that "it's our party's turn". Given the need for the public - as well as the Commons - to have confidence in Parliament restored, I would vote for Frank Field or Vince Cable. They would certainly be the peoples' choice.
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