Betty, your job is to sweep the gutter

MPs are held in low regard, and the Speaker blames the press. But, says Fran Abrams, she should get real
Click to follow
Picture this scene. Question Time in the House on a blustery winter's afternoon. The boys are packed in shoulder to shoulder. Their grey uniforms are more or less in order, but the atmosphere is fractious.

Tony rises to his feet and points an accusing, twisted finger at John. "It's not our fault you can't run a half-way competent government!" he yells. His friends, huddled around him as if expecting violence, roar their approval. Some of their faces are so distorted that they look as if they might start to drool.

John's riposte draws a guttural squawk from his own side. They love this taunt, even though they've heard it dozens of times before: "You certainly don't want the educational choice for everyone that you yourself have enjoyed!" he shouts, gleeful but irrelevant.

Just another day in the Mother of Parliaments. But what makes today different is what happens after the chief prefect and the head boy have sat down. Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, rises to her feet and begins berating the press, who are sitting meekly above her head. It has been brought to her notice, she says, that the media have been talking about sleaze as if it were rife in the House. But the vast majority of members are decent, honourable people. Why, Parliament even acts as a school for fledgling democrats from all over the world!

Betty, I have something to say to you, and I am going to try very hard not to say it in unparliamentary language. Come off it! Get real! As Jim McDonald from Coronation Street would say: "Catch yourself on."

You're right about one thing. Journalists probably are missing the point when they dig around in one or two small, murky holes and conclude that the whole political process is tainted by their smell.

The stench that pervades the House of Commons is far more powerful than that. It's the smell of years of male domination and entrenched social attitudes. The smell of petty power games and ritualistic confrontation. The smell of oily sycophancy, of backroom deals, of the failure even to begin to search for truth.

The real dishonesty in our democratic process has nothing to do with brown envelopes handed over in shady bars. It doesn't even stem directly from the activities of the lobbyists who circle the Palace of Westminster like wolves. It's just here. It seeps out of every pore of the time-worn stonework and it infects almost everyone who inhabits this place.

I say this now, two months after arriving, because I know it will not be much longer before I, too, cease to notice. Before I stop wondering what people here mean when they talk about democracy.

Of course, none of this would matter much if the place was doing its job properly. It wouldn't matter that a senior woman MP sneaks into the chamber from behind the Speaker's chair because she finds the place so intimidating. It wouldn't matter that journalists gain most of their information through off-the-record briefings from people who haven't got the courage of their convictions.

But the fact is that these surface irritations mask a far deeper malaise. The opposition - here, one assumes naively, to oppose - are barely doing anything of the sort. What happens time after time is that ministers propose legislation, the opposition say they dislike some of it, then the parliamentary arithmetic looks ropey so the two sides get together and stitch up a deal. The opposition wins some concessions, the Government gets its legislation through without delays and a few contentious clauses are left to give the impression that a real, open debate has gone on. And everyone goes home happy. Don't bother looking for real opposition, real information- gathering, in the sea of paperwork washing through the place either. In the inches-thick daily wad of ministers' written answers to MPs' questions you find evasion after stock evasion. "Not available in the form requested." "Could only be supplied at disproportionate cost." "Not held centrally." And increasingly, "Not a matter for this department," because it has been farmed out to an arm's-length agency.

Do you remember what happened, Betty, just after you made your statement the other day? I'm sure you do because you had to shout over the hubbub to make yourself heard. Pantomime over, the honourable members headed en masse for the doors. A few moments later the expanses of green leather banquette were nigh-on empty.

Most debates feature a dozen or so MPs along with a minister lolling, bored and half-awake, on the front bench. People wander in, make speeches and wander out again. Then when the division bell rings they all roll out of the bars, restaurants and tea rooms to vote as per instructions. Half the time most of them haven't heard a single word of the argument.

These things matter because when things go wrong, the checks and balances don't seem to work. What happened to the sweeping changes we thought would result from the Nolan report on standards in public life? The Scott report on arms to Iraq? A few days of furore, then everyone settled back into their comfortable routine.

The saddest thing, though, is that I don't think I ever really expected it to be any different. Like most reasonably well-informed members of the public, I regarded my MP not as someone through whom I and my fellow constituents could express our views but as an agent of his party.

That's why I and thousands of others like me don't get involved - because we don't think we can make a difference. Why 30 per cent of Oxbridge undergraduates say they won't even vote. Why nothing ever changes.

Betty Boothroyd was wrong to say what she did the other day. Of course there are people in the House who are swimming against the tide, but the Speaker seems to have failed to notice the fact that the current is going in the wrong direction.

All of us are in the gutter, of course, but more of us should be looking at the stars. And as for you, Betty, aren't you one of the people whose job it is to keep the gutter clean?