Dominic Lawson: Politics should be more like a gentlemen's club, not less

There's a form of subliminal class-based attack that Brown persists in delivering

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I wonder what Americans must now be thinking of the Palace of Westminster, on the (admittedly far-fetched) assumption that they are following our Prime Minister's running commentary on the Parliamentary Allowances scandal.

Yesterday Gordon Brown once again hammered out his familiar refrain that "the lesson from all this is that Parliament can no longer be like a gentlemen's club". You see, in America the term has a rather different meaning than that intended by Mr Brown. If you look up "Gentlemen's clubs in London" on the American search engine Google, the list is devoted to such establishments as Babylon Girls Escorts, Fantasy Strip, London Asian Escorts and Rififi Gentlemen's Club.

So let this column be the one to inform any visiting American rednecks who present themselves to the Sergeants-at-Arms of the Houses of Parliament expecting to be shown a good time: this is not what the British Prime Minister means.

On the other hand, there is a strong and deliberate imputation of decadence in Mr Brown's now familiar description – which he spat out a couple of more times yesterday in his interview on the Today programme. The PM's constant use of the phrase "Gentlemen's Club" in connection with the scandal is part of a definite strategy – and Mr Brown says nothing, not even "Hello", without political purpose. "Gentlemen's club" means Tory; "gentlemen's club" means, above all, the sort of Tory who went to Eton, then on to Oxford to join the Bullingdon Club, and then on – would you believe it in this day and age? – to lead the Conservative Party. Mr Brown does not even need to mention the two words David and Cameron.

Mr Cameron himself is highly sensitive to this form of subliminal class-based attack, which in part accounts for Mr Brown's persistence in delivering it. Although Cameron resigned from White's Club (perhaps the smartest gentlemen's club of the lot) in 2008, it was interesting that even up until then he never included his membership of White's in his Who's Who entry – rather in the way that Tony Benn never includes his public school education in his entry.

So what David Cameron absolutely will not do is challenge Brown head on, by pointing out that if the House of Commons had in fact been run along the lines of the sort of "gentlemen's club" stigmatised as greedy and corrupt by the PM, the country might well have been better served. As that great clubman, the historian Andrew Roberts recently observed: "The House of Commons lacks the key ingredient that makes up a really good club: the blackball. Absolutely anyone can become a Member of Parliament who has the qualifications of a thrusting temperament, opinionated nature, desire to boss us about, need to show off, and, very often, a gnawing inferiority complex and mother fixation. Who would want to belong to a club full of people like that? And that was before we discovered that they also had their hands in the till."

While it is certainly true that the gentlemen's clubs are, by definition, exclusive and therefore in the modern sense, undemocratic, anyone who wishes to serve as an officer of the club must stand for election – and he will not be paid a penny for his services in that role. Indeed, one of the most obvious differences between such institutions and the House of Commons is that those on the inside pay a substantial fee both to join and remain a member: there are no financial benefits to be gained – quite the opposite. In this sense, I suppose, they do resemble the House of Commons before the age of the professional political class, of which New Labour in particular is almost entirely composed.

This difference between the two institutions today can be seen with particular clarity in the peculiar case of AA Milne, the Disney Corporation and the Garrick Club. Milne had bequeathed the rights to Winnie the Pooh to four beneficiaries, his family, the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School – and his club, the Garrick. In 1998, Disney bought out the owners of the Pooh legacy and as a result each of these institutions came into a windfall of almost £30m. The Garrick committee decided that this money should be invested partly in renovating the club, but also in a range of charities, whose need they deemed to be greatest.

There were however a small number of Garrick men who argued that this money – not far shy of £40,000 each – should be distributed to the individual members of the Club, rather than charities. Who led this dissident band? Why, yes, it was a member of the Houses of Parliament: Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Said the breathtakingly brazen Norman: "I feel a little like Winnie the Pooh who, when asked if he would like honey or jam, replied that he would like both – and without the bread."

You might be reassured to know that at a special general meeting of the Garrick, Lord Lamont's suggestion was heavily defeated; as the then club secretary told this newspaper at the time: "There is real reluctance amongst the members for there to be any share-out at all." Can you imagine Mr Speaker Martin – to whom is attributed the remark "I have been a trade unionist all my life; I did not come into politics not to take what is owed to me" – making such a statement?

It is even possible that Mr Brown's visceral hostility to the ethos of gentlemen's clubs has made the British financial crisis much worse than it need have been. His first act as Chancellor was to give the Bank of England autonomy on interest rate setting; but at the same time he removed the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street's traditional role of monitoring and regulating the behaviour of the banking sector, and handed this over to a brand new entity called the Financial Services Authority. As one financial commentator explained: "The new Chancellor was contemptuous of what he saw as the old-boy network of the City and wanted it swept away by a big, shiny, new, professional regulator with thousands of staff beetling around drawing up regulatory codes, setting targets and attending conferences."

It is true that the old school method of regulation, known as "The Governor of the Bank of England's eyebrows", had its shortcomings, especially when dealing with foreign banks outside "the club"; but it could not possibly have been more useless than Brown's brand new, box-ticking bureaucrats of the FSA, who seemed to have no feeling for banking at all, and were fooled at every turn.

What Gordon Brown will not see – which is very odd in a man who parades the Christian origins of his "moral compass" – is that when you try to make all conduct enforceable, based on an all-seeing external system of monitoring, then you remove the element of moral choice that enables people to behave well purely as an act of conscience. Instead you get the sort of people who defend their behaviour, as so many MPs have recently, with the ghastly get-out: "It was within the rules."

This is not an argument to the effect that the gentlemen's clubs of Pall Mall and St James's are free of dubious or even downright dodgy characters: they certainly aren't. The point, however, is that the ethos of the club makes them behave as though they were gentlemen, when inside those buildings. It is precisely that ethos which the House of Commons has lost.

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