There is a lot of anger about,which is hardly surprising. The economic crisis has left a lot of people feeling insecure and resentful. As they worry about their living standards, their children’s future – the whole country’s future – their temper is not improved by reading about the millions which were made by some of the knighted bankers who got us into this benighted mess.
It’s not true that the banks are having to be bailed out because their directors paid themselves ridiculous bonuses. But many people think it is.
In other circumstances, although the cash for amendments episode would still have made headlines, it would not have inflamed public indignation to the extent that it has. Most peers – and MPs – are conscientious, public-spirited and honourable. It is not true that the entire governing class has its snouts in the trough. But many people think it is.
It is no coincidence that the unofficial strikes should have broken out now, and it will not be surprising if they spread. A lot of people are looking for an excuse to express their increasing rage. In other circumstances, the government could have used its prestige to calm things down. Now, to paraphrase Jim Callaghan, it is a case of “Prestige, what prestige?”
To an extent, we have been here before.
The decay of long-serving governments is usually accompanied by ridicule, and historical distortions. In 1945, it was the Tories and appeasement, a charge exploited by Labour politicians who had spent the 1930s opposing rearmament. By 1964, it was the Tories and 13 wasted years. Those years saw large improvements in living standards. The charge was made by Harold Wilson, who came to exemplify futility in office, but at the time, he took in a lot of people.
In 1997, the Tories were once again the victims, with John Major, as decent a manwho ever walked into Downing Street, under the cosh for sleaze. It would be delightful to watch as the whirligigs of time took their revenge on the cynics and scoundrels who defamed him and his government, but for one point. It is not healthy for any democracy if there is a progressive and ultimately chronic loss of confidence in government and the governors.
The dramatic fall in turnout at the 2001 and 2005 general elections suggests that this may be occurring. Over the past 60 years, there has also been a steady decline in deference.
Though that might seem healthy in a democracy, there is a damaging consequence: a diminished respect for expertise. We should not defer to the opinions of judges, diplomats or scientists because they are beings of a higher caste. We should entertain the possibility that their views are the product of a fusion of intellect and experience.
When so much seems to be going wrong, it is easy to understand a mood of impatience with the experts who have been in charge. But what is the alternative?
We live in a complicated and dangerous world, beset by Donald Rumsfeld’s enduring gift to the language: unknown unknowns. The challenges might daunt the ablest of men, yet we still need them to try. This is no time for ignorant populism.
In one respect, there has been a tacit recognition of this by both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama. When the banks need fixing, whom do they call on?
Bankers. One can imagine the nonsense which the Labour Party might have emitted on that subject had it been in opposition. In government, realism prevails.
Realism also demands caution, thought and time. There clearly do need to be improvements in bank regulation, on both sides of the Atlantic.
But if it were simple to work out what they ought to be, we would not have got into such a mess. After the Enron affair, the ignorant populists prevailed in the US Congress. The result was Sarbanes/ Oxley, a foolish piece of regulatory legislation which did far more damage to Wall Street than al-Qa’ida managed.
The City of London has benefited from some of the business that Sar Oxley drove into exile, and despite recent events, financial services are still an indispensable part of the British economy. It is vital to ensure that new regulatory measures in the UK owe everything to calm deliberation and nothing to Pierre Poujade.
The same applies to the House of Lords. A small number of peers are alleged to have taken advantage of a system of self-regulation based on trust. But this does not mean that the House of Lords is rotten. Far from it; as well as being a very inexpensive legislature, it manages to bring a remarkable range of experience and wisdom into one Chamber.
The present composition of the House of Lords owes everything to accident and nothing to design. It came about because Tony Blair insisted on acting before he had worked out what he wanted to do. Yet it seems none the worse for that, and it has one great merit, far more important than a few peccadilloes. It works.
Fortunately, the committee which has been set up to consider the amendments affair is admirably constituted.
Its members include John Cope, Derry Irvine and Eliza Manningham-Buller, all of whom are more than capable of resisting the hysteria of the hour. Any changes which they suggest will be sensible ones.
Barring further dramatic revelations, their Lordships will fall out of the news. This does not mean that public anger will dissipate. It will merely find other outlets. Until the election and beyond, it will be an important factor in British politics.
In the short run, this is good news for the Tories. Public anger destroys governments. But wise Tories, eschewing complacency, should realise that they have reasons for gratitude, and foreboding. From 1992 onwards, the Tory party had no luck – until it lost the 2005 election. Imagine if the Tories had won. Some aspects of the current crisis might have been better managed: Northern Rock for instance. But there would still have been a crisis.
Gloomy and moralising, Gordon Brown would have been a superb leader of the Opposition. The airwaves would have resounded with his denunciations of the Tories and their banker friends.
Leading the Opposition, Gordon Brown would have made the Tory party sound like a criminal conspiracy. Under his onslaught, the Tories would have felt like Mary, Queen of Scots in the grip of John Knox. Labour would now be 20 points ahead; Mr Brown would be looking forward to 10 years in No 10. Poor old Gordon: cheated again by Tony Blair, who did not even have the decency to loose the last election.
The Tories should be grateful for that, for they are now almost certain to win the next one. But they will inherit enormous problems, and David Cameron has still not demonstrated that he has the political body language to cope with them. Mr Cameron is excellent at good news, hope and social uplift. He is much less assured when it comes to the sombre tones of economic austerity. Mr Cameron himself does not expect much in the way of a honeymoon period. Worried voters will want early proof that the Government is steering the right direction. The Tories will have over a year to wait before coming to power. They will need every month of it.