LEADING ARTICLE:The high road to disaster

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The Independent Online
In the Seventies trades unionists would take to conference platform and television studio to assert that there was no link between wage increases and inflation. Then Labour activists spent 10 years in hall and corridor passionately contending that what the electorate really wanted was unilateral disarmament, sweeping nationalisation and tax hikes. Now Conservative MPs are arguing vehemently that the recommendations of the Nolan committee should be resisted for the sake of democracy. Why are they so determined to court disaster?

In the course of this past week three main objections to Nolan came to the surface. Best articulated by the Telegraph's partisan commentator, Simon Heffer, and the Tories' own wannabe Gingrich, Alan Duncan MP, the first argument was that Nolan's restrictions on MPs represented an attack on the economic base of Conservatism in the Commons. There is a likelihood, wrote Heffer, that if Nolan were enacted then "virtually no one of ability will want to be a Tory MP". Furthermore "many ministers will have to flee office before Nolan's restrictions began to bite". Duncan was similarly millennarian: "You are about to obliterate the professional classes' representation in the House of Commons," he told Lord Nolan.

Obliterate? Good heavens! How on earth did we miss it? Rushing back to our copies of Standards in Public Life we breathlessly flick the pages, searching for the total ban on outside jobs or on Ministers going on to lucrative employment on retirement. And instead we find: "MPs should remain free to have paid outside interests, unrelated to the work of Parliament. Paid work as general multi-client Parliamentary consultants should be banned." It also says that ex-ministers will have to wait three months after leaving office to take up outside posts, and an advisory committee could intervene where "they feel that the application is not appropriate, and to make public that advice if it is not taken".

Heffer and Duncan are better judges of what motivates the average public- spirited Conservative than we are, but is it really true that these mild restrictions will destroy the Tory gene pool? We doubt it.

Next comes the "gross intrusion" argument, put by Sir Edward Heath. He believes that the requirement for MPs fully to disclose their earnings from sources outside Parliament is a violation of privacy. In time, he argues, this will lead to the US-type situation where good candidates are driven from the field, unwilling to put their lives under the microscope.

But it is hard to see how this tendency is made any worse by Nolan. On the contrary, Nolan's insistence on declaration and disclosure seems likely to reduce unwelcome scrutiny by the media.

The most important quarrel with Nolan, however, concerns the sovereignty of Parliament itself. If Parliament is sovereign, they argue, how can it submit to the judgement of an outsider concerning the behaviour of MPs? Any rules about how Parliament and MPs should behave should be set and monitored by MPs themselves.

This, at least, is a serious argument. But it is not a conclusive one. In the first place Parliamentary sovereignty is already heavily qualified. Europe has usurped (or inherited, according to taste) many powers formerly held by the Commons alone. So the sovereignty debate has a genuinely anachronistic element in it.

Even so Nolan does not threaten sovereignty. True, he recommends the appointment of "a person of independent standing" as Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards to advise on a code of conduct and administer the register of interests. But this person will not be elected by the European Parliament, nominated by the Kabaka of Baganda or chosen from among lottery winners; the commissioner will be appointed by the House of Commons itself and will make recommendations to the Commons Privileges Committee.

In setting up Nolan, John Major, as so often, understood the public mood much better than did his party. Until Thursday night it looked as though, by accepting the Nolan conclusions, he might be able to draw the teeth of popular disillusion with politicians. His tragedy is that too many of his own side now seem beyond the call of reason. Like old-time trades unionists and Labour activists before them, they have entered a parallel universe to ours, governed by different realities. It is a universe reserved for those about to be misunderstood by the voters.