Leading Article: One last bad day for a bad Parliament

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The Independent Online
"You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"

The words are Oliver Cromwell's, delivered to the "Rump Parliament" of 1653, but as we watched the final televised session of Prime Minister's Questions for the Parliament of 1992-97 yesterday, they seemed unavoidably right. It was a wretched, mean-spirited, navel-gazing disgrace of an exchange. The leader of the Opposition tried to get the Prime Minister to hasten publication of a report on sleaze, which Mr Blair hoped would be useful to Labour in the election; Mr Major responded with his own torrent of bitter counter-accusations. The Prime Minister, as he reminds us in tones of injured innocence, has been smeared during his time in office. Yesterday he reminded the whole country that he too can be a sly and loquacious smearer himself. It was not a pretty sight.

Worse, the exchanges were a fitting end to the Parliament as a whole. The main domestic political events of these years, from the bitter Conservative struggle over European Union, including Major's resignation and retaking of the Tory leadership, to Blair's remaking of Labour, have taken place outside the Chamber and precincts of Westminster. The most memorable quotes and exchanges have occurred in television or radio studios. The most constitutionally significant interventions, though sanctioned by Parliament, have been made not by elected Members but by Sir Richard Scott and Lord Nolan. It has been left to the Commons to process legislation, sometimes effectively, and to provide the news bulletins with the pre-digested verbal gobbets known as soundbites.

The story of the Commons as an institution in these years has been dominated by "sleaze", a word which has entered the national vocabulary since 1992 with a force and frequency it never had before. Let us enter, at once, all the usual disclaimers and caveats - most MPs are honest, foreigners are mostly worse, and some of the business accusers of politicians are no angels themselves. All that said, the envelope-stuffing tendency has left its imprint on a whole cohort of British politicians. This has been a Conservative problem, partly because the Conservatives have been in power. Labour, belying its reputation as the anti-blood sports party, has careered along behind in gleeful mood. Yet Labour also, with its little local difficulties in Doncaster and elsewhere, and after its national wooing of party-helping business tycoons, has still to prove to the country that all its people would be different.

More important than all that, however, has been the lack, during the 1992-97 Parliament, of the two essential elements in a successful representative democracy - brave leadership and real debate. Leadership has been lacking, in particular, over Europe. The real running has been made by dissident Tory MPs, whose campaign against the EU and their own Cabinet has been ferociously energetic and breathtakingly successful; and by Thatcherite commentators and editors in the Tory press. They have helped turn public opinion around while the chosen leaders of the Conservative Party, including the Prime Minister, have dithered and prevaricated. Mr Major's negotiating stance at Maastricht will be remembered as a wise, far-sighted achievement, and a signal service to his country. But retreating, month by month, before a Euro-hostile movement which grew in self-confidence with every backward step he took was no service. Without one man, Kenneth Clarke, who courageously refused to follow fashion, that retreat would have become a disastrous rout.

Nor, if the job of politicians is to challenge public prejudice and offer new visions, has the leadership of New Labour, so far, been hugely impressive. The party modernisers have bravely and ruthlessly saved their own political machine from its own atavistic instincts. But they have not addressed the country so boldly. From social policy to economics, the agenda of the Conservatives has been more echoed than confronted. This, we think, will change if Blair wins on 1 May. Everything will be subtly but essentially altered, and Britain will shift direction. Yet it cannot be said that the Labour front bench led for Britain in any striking way during the Parliament just ending.

What about debate? There are very hard arguments to be had in this country - over the great car culture and the environment; over monetary union; over the clash between individual choice and mass dismay at what science makes possible; over drugs, censorship, violence and how we treat children. Far too few of these, we feel, have raged passionately in the Commons. Our MPs have spoken cautiously, nicely, often to an almost empty chamber, following party lines, and getting truly angry only when their own privileges or honour are under debate. They have been suited careerists, without sufficiently wide ambitions, not conscious enough of their possible leadership role in the Britain of the late Nineties. Earlier this year, some of them were huffing and puffing about the admittedly raucous and sound-bitten Granada television debate on the future of the monarchy. One of the reasons that happened is that they themselves would never have dared to debate such matters. So while we admire many individual MPs, feel affection for others, and recognise a mass of honest and hardworking individuals, we say again, with Oliver - you have sat too long.

Let those who return in a few weeks reflect on the failures of our Parliament Past. Let them remember that every cheap, sneering exchange that defaces Prime Minister's Questions lowers the Commons a little further in importance; that even a few, very slightly, corrupt MPs can corrupt the reputation of politics absolutely; and that a chamber which fails to debate the serious things the country is worried about becomes ignored and unreported. Yesterday was a bad day near the end of a Parliament. Away with you all to the hustings - and come back, washed by democracy, cleaner, sharper and - frankly - better than you were.