British MPs begin their 12-week summer break today. They may feel that they deserve it after what most of them see as the most gruelling parliamentary sessions that even the most long-serving of them can remember. The scandals over MPs' expenses have delivered a series of severe blows to the psyches of our parliamentarians. But they should not make the mistake of assuming that it is over now.
They have been careful to be modest in their destinations. Few are announcing trips to the Caribbean or Seychelles. More modest holiday spots are in vogue – France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Scotland – the kind of places preferred by the average voter who gets only four weeks of holiday a year. The Prime Minister, once a regular summer visitor to the United States, is setting the tone with a jaunt to the Lake District.
But politicians are wary that, as David Cameron (Greece and Brittany) puts it, the long summer break may bring Parliament into disrepute. That could be more than a round of media stories about lazy MPs sunning themselves at taxpayers' expense while the rest of the nation struggles with recession. Some of them have tried to get their retaliation in first by pointing out that 57 days of the 82-day recess are supposed to be working days in which they dedicate themselves to the constituency matters to which they have been too busy to attend during the parliamentary session. A recess is not a holiday, they point out.
They should be careful not to misjudge the public mood. There is more to this than the rather juvenile antics of a new campaign group which has set up an MP Holiday Watch asking people to send in reports of MPs at work and at play to uncover how much time they spend on the beach, or undertaking second jobs, and how much time they devote to constituency work. The problem goes well beyond suspicion of the venality of a few expense-scamming, holiday-skiving individuals.
Public disenchantment with politics has plumbed a new depth. Trust in politicians is at its lowest on record. The more time MPs spend with constituents over the summer the more they will realise the extent to which engagement with the very political process has fallen into disrepute.
Analysing the problem, however, is far easier than coming up with a solution. Writing here about the need for constitutional reform yesterday, we called for changes to the voting system, a stronger and more independent parliamentary select committee system, reforms to the second chamber and a greater devolution of power to communities. But that alone will not be enough.
There is need today for a psychological or cultural shift too. It is interesting that opinion polls show low levels of satisfaction with the work of local councils even though the Audit Commission suggests that they are doing a good job. More revealingly, almost three in four members of the public admit that they have little idea of what their council is doing – and yet they are happy to proclaim themselves dissatisfied with it.
A powerful disconnect has occurred. It is not powered by mere facts nor by the detail of MPs' misdemeanours, much of which is far more trivial than the resulting public outrage ought to warrant. Our MPs need to spend their holidays wondering why the British public is rejecting the political process – and ask themselves what can be done about it. Otherwise, at the end of their long summer break, voters might start saying: we have done without them for this long, do we really need them all back?