We appear to be in a crisis of consent. A large number of voters are so repelled by the recent revelations that they are talking as if they would like to kick over the card table and restart the game. This reaction should not surprise us. For a number of years, it has been obvious that if our current political arrangements depend on public approval, the foundations were increasingly fragile. In 1950, three-quarters of the electorate voted for the two major parties. By 2005, it was two-fifths.
Our parliamentarysystem has one long-standing asset and one historic disadvantage. The strength of our parties, reinforced by the electoral system, places formidable barriers in the path of new entrants, as the SDP discovered in the 1980s. The openings which proportional representation offers to new or minor parties will be apparent in the European elections. The disadvantage arises from the fact that we never had a constituent assembly. The sovereign people was never invited to decide how it should be governed. A pre-democratic parliamentary system merely evolved. That was as if the children were told that they were now old enough to dine with their parents, but only on condition that they minded their table manners.
Judging by the way that many voters are now talking about their politicians, one might have assumed that as they were describing a regime which had been foisted upon them, they were entitled to deny its legitimacy. Life ought to be easier for American politicians, who have a greater claim to an historic mandate. It might seem curious that distant successor generations should feel bound by decisions taken in Philadelphia in the late 1780s, especially as the unfinished business from those deliberations was eventually concluded on the battlefield, in the Civil War. Even so, Americans – or at least, white ones – are much more likely than the British to express pride in their political system.
In assessing our political modus operandi, we British have a problem. We underestimate what we take for granted. With the help of the English Channel, we have enjoyed a remarkably benign political history: a striking rebuttal of the notion that one should not put new wine in old bottles. Continual renewal has endowed us with a legacy which other nations rightly envy: stability. It follows, surely, that we should not pull down any walls in our old political house, without first ascertaining what they are supporting. It would be folly to blunder into thoughtless changes which jeopardise stability.
There are two points to be made about the expenses degringolade. First, it was trivial. Second, it wll never happen again. Partly because of the system's ambiguities, some MPs in all parties came to think that they could spend their housing allowance on non-essential items. Among them were Tam Dalyell, Ian Gibson, Douglas Hogg, and Peter Viggers: all four of them men of great integrity; all four precisely the type of strong-minded and independent-minded MPs whom the public claims to admire. A much smaller number of MPs may have exploited ambiguity in the pursuit of embezzlement. They may now discover that ambiguity has its limits.
In future, there will be no ambiguity. Whatever new arrangements emerge, they will be clear and transparent. As regards the housing allowance, there is another point to keep in mind. The new system will not save much money. Like others who are required to perform their duties in two places, MPs should be entitled to an accommodation allowance, and a figure of £20,000 a year is not unreasonable.
But "reasonable" does not appear to be in fashion at the moment. To judge by the letters columns of most newspapers, the public is wallowing in unreasonableness. At times, most people's political opinions are fuelled by anger. In normal circumstances, this anger is canalised by the stabilty of our system, and by the deference which it used to enjoy, and which was not wholly extinct – though that may have changed.
If so, it will not be a change for the better. An eruption of Poujadist anger would not improve our system of government. Nor would a celebrities' crusade. No one could argue that this country has been outstandingly well-governed in recent years. But this does mean that our politicians are venal nincompoops. It is a mere testament to the difficult world in which they operate.
In any such discussion, the perspective of long views is essential. On a 30-year view, it would be easy to argue that Britain has been at least as well-governed as any major country. On both the right and the left, there are habitual malcontents who are using grievance-mongering to advance their agendas. There are still some Tories, wallowing in a mythical version of Thatcherism, who cannot accept David Cameron's willingness to do deals, with reality and with the electorate. Rather like the Bennites in the mid-Eighties, they would prefer a defeat to a victory based on compromise. There is also Charles Moore, who informs us that he wants to overthrow the political class. He could never be accused of Poujadism. He is indeed the last survivor of Young England, that Tory romantic movement in the 1840s, which drew on the idealism of Lord John Manners and the cynicism of Benjamin Disraeli. Charles is on the idealist wing. He sometimes gives the impression that he would only be comfortable in a Tory Party which had revived its opposition to the Second Reform Bill. He does not seem to recognise that there has always been a political class in Britain, which radicals have habitually condemned, before taking office and joining it.
That class has always included individuals who were a waste of pay and rations. But its current membership, especially on the Tory benches, contains a large number of dedicated public servants who could earn significantly more in other professions, but who chose politics because they wanted to serve their country. Do not call for their overthrow, Charles, until you have worked out how to replace them. Before asking for something, make sure that you really want it.
That consideration will not trouble the leftist grievance-exploiters. They see all this as the last chance to impede an otherwise-inevitable Tory victory at the next election. By discrediting the current system, the Polly Toynbees and others are hoping for an eleventh hour change: some PR gerrymander that might save the Left from the full rigours of its deserved fate.
Fortunately, this is fantasy. Next year, the electorate will find the usual solution to a failed government. Once the current anger has subsided, there may be a case for examining the workings of the Commons. But any such scrutiny should be based on two of the the wisest maxims in British politics. One is an Irishism: "Well, this pig does not weigh as much as I thought it did – but then again, I never thought it would." It is still a jolly fine pig.
The second comes from Lord Falkland on the eve of the English Civil War: "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change". It is necessary to change the expenses procedure. Otherwise, we should tread cautiously.Reuse content