Chris Bryant: All the pillars of our establishment are failing - Parliament most of all

A Political Life


I'm not a fan of cynicism. I prefer to remember that when Pandora opened her mythical box (or jar, for the classicists among you), all the evil of the world tumbled out uncontrollably, but at the bottom of the box lay the spirit of hope. But, by Nora, it's getting difficult to be optimistic at the moment. I got the new unemployment figures for the Rhondda this week. The number of young people out of work for more than a year has risen by 775 per cent in a single year. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Like a trapped nerve or excruciating sciatica that refuses to succumb to treatment, the depressed ambition and hopelessness that similar figures in many areas will engender could, I fear, keep our whole economy depressed for another decade.

And so many of our national institutions have failed in recent years. The Commons, mired in expenses stories. The Catholic Church exposed for child abuse cover-ups and the Church of England ridiculed for indecision. The dark recesses of the cosy relations between press, police and politicians shown up in sharp relief. And now the banks, on whom we have relied for probity, already reeling from their own monumental follies, revealed as greedy, lying, arrogant incompetents with a sense of entitlement way in excess of anything I have ever known a benefit claimant to dream of.

But at the heart of it has been the failure of Parliament. So scared were we that financial services would up sticks that we were all in thrall to them. They funded one party and cowed another. So while Labour was insisting on light-touch regulation of the industry, George Osborne was arguing that the banks should be subject to little more than the infinitesimally gentle dusting of a goose down.

Nobody wants political parties that behave like unruly rabbles. But until Parliament finds an inner core of independence, lasting change will elude us.

Stage-managing the Commons

Hansard never lies. Not quite, m'lud, as Hansard tidies things up so assiduously that you can easily miss things. Take Tuesday's questions to the Chancellor. If you relied on Hansard alone you'd think Sarah Newton (Con), who is hobbling around on crutches, just happened to stumble into asking a question that led to Osborne announcing the delay of the 3p increase in fuel duty (which Ed Balls had called for that very morning). Indeed, she fell over herself in praising the Chancellor. "If I were not on crutches I would be jumping for joy," she frothed.

But if you'd been in the chamber you'd have spotted the Speaker trying to call her on the rather similar question three, but she declined. Why? Because she knew what George wanted to say and question three was being answered by Danny Alexander. So she had to wait for question five in order to give George his moment and her a chance to jump for joy.

Great minds do not think alike

It wasn't the only staged moment of the week. On Monday we had the joy of Work and Pensions Questions. Number six printed on the order paper was from Stephen Hammond (Con) about work experience. A decent question, except he was followed by Stephen Metcalfe (Con), Eric Ollerenshaw (Con), Jackie Doyle-Price (Con) and Angie Bray (Con) all with exactly the same question. This is not a case of Tory MPs all thinking independently but miraculously as one. They were planted questions handed out by the government whips and dutifully submitted for the ballot. The same happens in every other department (and happened under Labour). It's a nonsense, as is the whole business of the ballot with preprinted questions. David Miliband suggested last week that we should turn the whole hour over to open questions, much as we do with PMQs. He's right.

I'll be forgetting my own name next

As our editor pointed out on Any Questions a couple of weeks ago, the mass amnesia displayed by ministers at Leveson makes one wonder how they manage to recognise each other at cabinet meetings, but there was an egregious example this week, when Sir George Young, as bold as brass, excoriated Labour for introducing the fuel duty escalator. Yet it was introduced in 1993 by the Tory government, a fact he might have been expected to recall as he was Financial Secretary in 1994 and Secretary of State for Transport in 1995.

The dove descends – or was it a pigeon?

Thursday evening, midst the glutinous warmth, to All Saints, Blackheath, pictured, for a celebration of Fr Nicholas Cranfield's 25 years as a priest in the Church of England. It was all splendidly catholic (as opposed to Roman Catholic, which is similar but profoundly different). Smells, bells and all the trimmings. It struck me how such a beautifully adorned, well-sung faith gives order to a chaotic world. Everything has a name. Dalmatic, tunicle, chasuble, alb, apparelled amice, humeral veil. And yet it's a world apart. As Nicholas was intoning the sacred words ("who in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread..."), I could make out a bird fluttering its wings outside the east window. To the eyes of faith perhaps it was a dove. Or maybe a pigeon.

Not that the clergy I know are any less worldly than the rest. When I was a curate we had a terrible problem with pigeons. Brides used to hate the inevitable deposits and we were permanently clearing guano from the roof. So when the PCC heard of a machine that would very humanely deal with them we gladly had one installed in the bell tower. When the press caught wind of it, all hell broke loose, though, as someone had injudiciously suggested it was a moral obligation to "kill a pigeon for Jesus".

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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