In the Commons and on the make

There was a whiff of scandal about Harold Wilson, but it was as nothing compared with today's MPs
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The Independent Online
So Harold Wilson spent the last years of his life in relative poverty: there was a pension of pounds 28,700, but the nursing fees cost far more than this and there was apparently no nest egg. Reading this, I was reminded that in the months that followed his resignation, many people thought Wilson must have been corrupt, that there must have been some sort of scandal somewhere. The resignation itself had a lingering sense of mystery.

During that time, I met a member of the Callaghan cabinet on a train and we had coffee. I cannot remember what the most recent prompting had been, but at one point I said: "Don't you think that if there has to be a scandal, it would be better to get it over with quickly, rather than have it hanging over your heads before the next election?"

"What kind of scandal were you thinking of?" asked my companion.

"Oh, I don't know," I said airily, aware that I was being looked at rather closely. "I suppose I was thinking of a sort of sale-of-honours-ish scandal."

"Yes, but what did he do with the money?" was the immediate reply, which startled me with its urgency and its implication: that we, too, fear there might be some scandal, but the whole thing falls to pieces when you start to look for the money.

Many years later, the Spycatcher affair revealed another reason for the whiff of scandal around Wilson - that there were barmy right-wingers in the security services deliberately starting rumours of some kind of treacherous Russian connection. That put an end to a choice old theory which had Wilson recruited to the KGB way back in the post-war years - a theory which had sometimes been published, in semi-jocular form, just to test the water.

Wilson was not a spy and he was not on the make. He once earned a lot of money for his memoirs, but this was shared out with his staff. His first period as prime minister, from 1964 to 1970, left him with a bank overdraft of pounds 4,000 and only pounds 200 in the Post Office. It is the thought of that Post Office savings book which brings, almost, a lump to the throat.

Compare and contrast the present day. We do not live in a world where people wonder if there might, perhaps, be something roughly resembling a sale-of-honours scandal. We know for a fact that there is one. The Labour Party has set out the figures, which show perfectly clearly that you dramatically improve your chances of becoming an industrial knight by the simple expedient of giving money to the Conservative Party.

No one nowadays would think of saying to a cabinet minister: "Might there not be a scandal on the way, and might it not be better to get it over with quickly?" because we all know that it is not a question of a scandal, but rather an interminable march-past of scandals in the plural. One might perhaps say: "Look, couldn't we do something to slow down/speed up the rate at which these scandals occur? Couldn't we manage them better, re-route them, introduce a contraflow here and a diversion there, so that these scandals don't clog up the whole system?"

But everyone knows that in order to begin talking about the present, we have to accept that we are living in a Permanent Scandal Economy.

I do not want to suggest for a moment that a quarter of a century ago Britain was ruled by a race of political giants. The reverse, really. I want to say that when it came to corruption, there were pygmies on the earth in those days - fine, upstanding pygmies.

Today, what you get in the Commons is a culture of self-enrichment so embedded that the most brazen rogue will be happy to stand up in debate and say that if you unthinkingly erect a barrier to self-enrichment of MPs, brazen rogues such as himself might well be deterred from entering politics.

Oh, brazen new world! I spent some time last week trying to educate myself as to why Madam Speaker had let Sir Jerry Wiggin off with an apology. Then I met some people who were astonished at the outcome and I confidently embarked upon an explanation of the underlying reasons. But as soon as I did so, I realised that the reasons I had made it my civic duty to understand were of such subtlety that they had long since evaporated. I no longer knew what I thought I had once understood.

Yesterday, the Observer said the Speaker's counsel had advised her "that there was doubt over a prima-facie breach of privilege because the amendments had been tabled to the Gas Bill during its committee stage - giving Sir Jerry a later opportunity to declare his interest". This is a truly subtle reasoning. This is what is so hard to remember. It was not wrong not to declare his interest (or even his name) at the committee stage, because he could, if so moved, have declared it (and perhaps his name) at a later stage.

Impressive, isn't it? To make a comparison which may, I know, sound absurd, it is like saying that to walk out of the shop without paying the bill is not theft, because one could always have second thoughts, having gone halfway down the street, and one could come back into the shop and say: "Oh, by the way, I think I'd better pay for these." And the shopkeeper would say: "American Express? That'll do nicely, Mr Coe."

If it were true that, by effectively letting him off, the Speaker had ruined Sir Jerry's standing (because, while those MPs whose names end in -ick might be said to have purged their offence by the end of their punishment, Sir Jerry, not having had the punishment, has been deprived of the purge), one might take satisfaction. If the message had been widely and well understood that, to the utter disgust of the Speaker, Sir Jerry had escaped on a technicality, there might be something to be said for the outcome. But this has not been widely and well understood in Sir Jerry's constituency party, which on Saturday let the matter drop and let it be known that it was relying on the Speaker's judgement.

So the Speaker drops the catch and Lord Nolan, stylishly pusillanimous, agrees not to look at the matter of party funding - ie, the sale-of-honours scandal - "before the next election". As if we were not always in a pre- election period, as if it were better to close our minds to corruption in party funding until the corrupt party in question has had, as the serpent would say, another bite at the apple.