Comedy and tragedy are near-allied. Think of the Fool in Lear, the Gravedigger in Hamlet: think now of MPs' expenses. That, too, has comic aspects – but a number of fools in the House of Commons are in danger of turning into gravediggers: digging the grave of Parliament's reputation.
The expenses story could not have broken at a worse moment. During the past half-century, there had already been a steady erosion of deference in British public life. To some, that will sound like a desirable development: a necessary phase in the evolution of a vigorous democracy. But it has been accompanied by a growing disrespect for expertise, inherited wisdom and institutional wisdom; by the tabloidisation and dumbing-down of political debate.
Disrespect is hardly deterred by an economic crisis which was bound to bring the political class into disrepute. Then came the expenses revelations. What was your MP doing while the banks were imploding? He was doing his expenses. As the public reads about MPs more or less charging for condoms and jelly-beans, incredulous laughter rapidly turns into scorn and then into outrage. The danger is that Parliament's prestige will never recover.
That would be lamentable. Taking the long view, we British have demonstrated an unparalleled talent for political stability: hence our quiet pride in our political history. That has rarely expressed itself in noisy demonstrations of national preening. Those can be left to more insecure nations. We did not need to boast about it; we just knew that our system of government was the best.
But that would not be true today. Will it ever be true again? Admittedly, a country can survive even if the electorate has a chronically cynical attitude towards its politicians. Take France and Italy and those two quintessentially operatic characters, Messrs Sarkozy and Berlusconi. President Sarkozy governs his country as if he were awaiting his composer. Premier Berlusconi thinks that he has found his operatic role: Don Giovanni (his wife is fed up playing Donna Elvira).
This all adds to the gaiety of nations, and in both of those nations, life goes on. That is not enough, in either country. In each of them, structural economic reform is overdue and in neither case can the political system mobilise the necessary consent. That is where the cynicism imposes its costs. At times, any well-run country needs a leader who will dare to be unpopular; who will not give the voters what they want, but what they need. That not only requires political courage. It requires a mode of government which commands sufficient respect. That does not exist in Italy or France. Action is necessary if we are not to join them.
Action by the politicians, but also by the public, who ought to calm down, remember a few self-evident truths and consider current developments in a long-term perspective. Over the decades, this has not been a badly governed country. Nor have we suddenly been afflicted by a parcel of rogues at Westminster. The present mess was created by accident and thoughtlessness plus an admixture of greed. But we have not returned to 18th-century levels of peculation.
It all started in the days of incomes policies. When the government was imposing pay restraint, it was not a good idea to pay MPs more. So they were given stealth increases in the form of higher expenses. That gained momentum under all governments. MPs were encouraged to think of their expenses as a form of additional salary. Some of them were wise enough to eschew temptation; others merely slid into the conventionally accepted way of doing things.
In this, they were abetted by the Fees Office. It had come to see its role as facilitation: making life easier for MPs. So unless the request was grotesque, the question: "is it OK for me to...?" was almost guaranteed to elicit a favourable answer.
The voters should also remember that most MPs put in long hours and that many of them have made financial sacrifices in pursuit of a political career. That is especially true on the Tory benches, but not exclusively so. In the early 1980s, a Parliamentary candidate began to lose heart. A barrister who had recently taken silk, he was earning a decent income: significantly higher than an MP's salary. He wondered whether he could afford to become an MP. His party's leader, determined to hang on to him, solved the problem by assuring him that he could continue to practise at the bar.
The candidate did become an MP. His name is Menzies Campbell. The public almost certainly believes that it wants more MPs like Sir Menzies. If so, the public ought to be prepared to pay for them. The public would no doubt retort that not all MPs are as good as that. If so, the solution is in the public's hands. Vote out the mediocrities. If the party that you support is afflicted by one, join it and agitate against him.
That is a longer-term solution. In the much-shorter term, a tourniquet must be found to stop the bleeding. A month ago, David Cameron realised this and asked for a meeting with Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg, while working on ideas of his own. For two weeks, the Tory Leader heard nothing from No 10. Then Mr Brown did call in the other party leaders, but only after YouTubing his own bizarre proposals. The meeting was a waste of time. Although no mobile phones were thrown, Gordon Brown was not even prepared to look at Mr Cameron's ideas.
That was characteristic of the PM; it was also silly of him. As the electoral damage is bound to fall most heavily on the Government, Mr Brown has most to gain from the shelter of bipartisanship – and Mr Cameron is to be commended for offering it, in the public interest. But bipartisanship is not one of Gordon Brown's values.
David Cameron did have a meeting with Sir Christopher Kelly, who is in charge of the expenses review. The PM tried to bounce Sir Christopher into speeding up the process and was firmly rebuffed. David Cameron did enquire whether it was possible to accelerate the review. Sir Christopher replied that it was more important to get it right.
If No 10 would display some goodwill, it might still be possible to come up with some interim measures, based on transparency. Any organisation which requires its employees to work in two places beyond reasonable commuting range would pay accommodation costs. So should Parliament. But the quasi-embezzlement which some MPs have committed must be terminated.
MPs need secretaries. We need not concern ourselves with them, for an MP who employs an idle or incompetent secretary is likely to be punished for his choice as his office seizes up and with it his relations with his constituents. Researchers are a greyer area. With them, there is an argument for an auditing process, to ensure that they are bona fide.
Auditing: traditionalists feel nostalgia for the days when Parliament regulated itself and no one complained. But we have to recognise that a lot of work is needed before we can rescue the phrase "Honourable Member" from the comedians.