LEADING ARTICLE:Game, set and match to Nolan

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Yesterday was a very good day for Parliament. In effect, MPs voted to back the findings of the Nolan committee on declaring MPs' earnings from lobbying - and to reject an attempt significantly to water down its conclusions. And they did so by a convincing margin. As a result, this aspect at least of the agenda to restore faith in British public life will now be put into practice. From next Wednesday parliamentarians will be able to look constituents in the eye and say, "it's all there, if you want to see it".

Paradoxically it was a good day, too, for a politician who scarcely deserves it, namely the Prime Minister. Originally determined to see Nolan implemented in full, Mr Major took fright at the anger of some of his crustier, more other-worldly backbenchers and - in a discreditable volte face - agreed to sponsor the recommendations of the Conservative-dominated select committee. But had this anti-disclosure position won the day the Conservatives would have been vulnerable right up to a general election to Labour attacks over Nolan. The matter would have become an election issue in which the Tories could not but lose.

As it is, the canny Mr Major must endure some mild embarrassment, but he faces no split and no running sore before the country goes to the polls. No wonder his minister, Tony Newton, conducted the debate in a way that was so low key it was off the tonal scale. The Opposition, for its part, may have lost a useful stick with which to beat the Government, but it justly bathed in the rare moment of victory that the debate afforded it.

Despite its lack of drama it was not a bad day for reasoned debate, either. There was remarkably little of the name-calling and posturing that so often disfigures these occasions. MPs seemed to be more than usually aware that their behaviour was under scrutiny. The absence of the whips may well have contributed to this, suggesting that there should be many more free votes in the House of Commons.

But, above all, it was a good day for Lord Nolan himself and the process of piecemeal constitutional reform he represents. Ever since his appointment by John Major, Nolan has played the hand dealt to him with consummate skill. Whatever the Government's intentions in offering him the task of restoring public confidence in the governance of Britain, Nolan himself has read the public mood well. Equally important, he has skilfully crafted his approach in a way that produced results. From the care taken with the original composition committee, ensuring that the members were well respected and beyond partisan reproach, to the way they were bound in to the committee's conclusions, Nolan's team has worked wonderfully well: firm, but never strident; high profile but never attention-seeking.

As a result - as last night's vote shows - it has become very difficult indeed for vested interests to stand against the Nolan Alliance of those among us who have consistently argued that Britain's public institutions will only prosper if they are subject to effective scrutiny. Only with that scrutiny will old, encrusted institutions achieve the kind of self- critical awareness which is the first condition for well-judged reform.

To parliamentary traditionalists of both parties, this is sacrilege - the placing of the unelected above the elected, a constitutional outrage. This is entirely wrong: old institutions cannot change without a powerful catalyst. For Parliament, Nolan is just that, no less, no more. With this victory behind him, he can embark upon his work across the rest of the public sector with renewed confidence.

Comments