Denis MacShane: End the cant and save Bill Cash for the nation

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The Independent Online

My heart sank when I read that Bill Cash, the doyen of anti-Europeans in the Commons, had been fingered in the MPs' expenses row. As a BBC journalist and trade union official I was paid per diems, overnights and all sorts of allowances that the professional classes are awarded to boost their salary.

Uncomfortable as it is for all MPs – and my allowance claims have come under scrutiny in the national and local press – the exposure of a system that should have been wound up years ago has to be healthy for democracy.

But must every MP be defenestrated to prove that the burghers of Bromsgrove are right as they devour their hard-working MP Julie Kirkbride live on television? They have got Ms Kirkbride. Must they get Mr Cash?

I hope not. Cash is my opposite in almost every way imaginable. He is passionately anti-European. I am passionately in favour of Britain being fully in Europe. He is a devoted Thatcherite free-marketeer. I am a social democrat who wants the market to be our servant not master. He is a romantic Catholic public school Tory. I consider religious ideology to have invaded and colonised too much 21st-century political space. We have done battle over Europe in the Commons for 15 years. But I leap to his defence because if the Commons does not have room for Bill Cash it will be an infinitely poorer place.

For that is the beauty of this battered place called the House of Commons around which so many want to heap a funeral pyre. It has been always been full of the Bill Cashes, the Tony Benns, the Clare Shorts, the George Galloways, the Nicholas Wintertons, the Shaun Woodwards ready to cross the floor, all of them hated by their whips and party bosses. MPs are weak, strong, vain, proud, stupid, fiddling, clever or ultra-honest individuals who will never fully conform to the New Model Army of perfect MPs that is now demand.

A little further back, the Labour Party was quick to suspend Nye Bevan as an MP at about the same time in the late 1930s that the Conservative Party was actively seeking to deselect Winston Churchill as a Tory MP because he did not conform to the party leadership. But both Churchill and Bevan were cloaked in the invincible democratic armour of having been elected freely by a free people, rooted in a time and space that constituted an unbreakable bond between a few square miles of our nation and the Parliament that decides our laws.

So when Nick Clegg calls for MPs to be recalled by a baying mob organising a petition with the help of the press he surrenders our parliamentary democracy to those with money or hate in their hearts. When David Cameron and Labour ministers call for proportional representation, they hand over power to centralised party machines to choose or unchoose MPs. Those nations most associated with political corruption – think Ireland, Greece, Romania among others – all have. When Nick Clegg says no outside earnings for MPs, he is saying goodbye to Lloyd George, Jo Grimond, Paddy Ashdown, Charlie Kennedy and Menzies Campbell without mentioning the big MP outside earners such as Roy Hattersley, John Smith or William Hague.

Please can this cant come to an end? New, rigorous rules are in place and the wrongs exposed cannot happen again. The Commons should remain a mirror of our nations, not an assembly of clones appointed by centralised party bureaucrats and subject to the approval of offshore press proprietors.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former minister