No way to run a country Just empty gestures Accustomed to

George Walden, standing down as Tory MP, explains his exasperation with an archaic system

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A YEAR ago I put down a parliamentary question about the Ten O'Clock Rule - the moment in the House of Commons when, by immemorial custom, a vote must be held. My question was about the origin of the immemorial custom, its suitability to modern conditions, and whether there were any plans to change it. I asked the question because I knew the answer. I simply wanted to get it on the record, so that the world could marvel at the British sense of historical continuity, or at our mulish servitude to tradition, according to taste.

The rule dates from the 1880s and was designed to deter Parnellites from filibustering over the Irish question. Today it deters MPs from leading normal lives, deters women from becoming MPs at all, and deters anyone from reforming parliamentary hours, the sacrosanct Ten O'Clock Rule fixing them in a vice of illogicality for all eternity. To the second part of my question - the suitability of the rule to modern conditions - there was no reply, and nor could there be. As to whether there were any plans to change it, the answer was "no".

There could scarcely be a better metaphor for the British political process than the solemn, self-regarding lunacy of the Ten O'Clock Rule. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and if you are going to have a queen, she has to ride in a golden carriage, otherwise she is not a queen. The Ten O'Clock Rule, however, serves no symbolic or decorative purpose. It simply fouls up people's lives, and to a degree the legislative process. It is especially sad to watch ministers troop through the lobbies in the late evening, like so many hollow-eyed shamanists, in purblind deference to obsolete custom.

WHY do we do it? There is such a thing as the vanity of eccentricity and the English have it is spades; eccentricity being the least intelligent form of distinction, it gains the widest approbation. There is a feeling that the very quirkiness of our Parliament sets us above lesser folk; in Europe without Baedeker, Edmund Wilson - no enemy of tradition - pricked the illusion. After hearing Churchill defend parliamentary customs on the grounds that the House of Commons was "under the gaze of the whole world", and that they helped to maintain British power and prestige abroad, he commented that Churchill was talking merely about a form of publicity: "I felt that the power and the glory were perhaps ebbing out of these symbols, that the old virtue was no longer quite there."

That was in post-war England. Forty years on, "the old virtue" is even less in evidence. If Parliament were our only curiosity shop, it would matter less. But Westminster sets the tone of self-satisfied obsolescence in other parts of society. Our custom of deferring to status and position rather than to talent and intelligence takes many forms, but remains as irrational and impregnable as the Ten O'Clock Rule. So it is with our tradition of educational apartheid - neatly reflected in the fact that the vast majority of Conservatives (myself included) send their children to private schools, while the offspring of the other lot go to the others. Neither in America nor on the Continent will you find such frozen divisions.

Since there is no consensus for change, we resort to evasion. Again, Edmund Wilson had a sharp eye for the methods the English have perfected for warding off inconvenient questions, the "false issue" being favourite. In 40 years we have lost none of our skills. In Britain, you can tell when something is cracking up at the centre of things by the energy and ingenuity people devote to pushing on the periphery.

When the Great Game of the Cold War is over and a global economic revolution is raging, when Britain's place in the new world is, to say the least, not assured, when we are in danger of being out-skilled and out-performed by countries we used to call the "Third World", the "false issues" surge into prominence as never before. We point to an imminent threat to our sovereignty from democratic Europe. We say we must pump up house prices. And we get fearfully agitated about the dishonesties of a handful of MPs, and unleash our prurient fury over their sad little affairs of the heart. Any sport in a storm.

ON PARLIAMENT, the question is asked, "how did we come to elect such a bunch of inadequates?" Again, that is a false issue. In fact there remain a surprising number of talented people in the Commons, not all of them very visible, or usefully employed. The real issue is "what calibre of person will we get to do the job in 10 years' time?"

The job has shrunk in scope and intensified in detail. It has shrunk because defence and international affairs - always the "fun" aspect of polities, as Mr Heseltine has reminded us in his touching recollections of his anti-CND days during last week's by-election - will no longer offer the delicious distractions they once did.

Far from poring over maps, the MP of the future will be hunched over the details of the social security system, or of some new industrial training scheme. Worthy, if unglamorous work. Yet someone is going to have to do it, and, if our economy is to prosper, do it well. In an ideal parliament 10 years hence you would have 650 MPs of the commitment of Frank Field, the integrity of Sir Terence Higgins, or the intelligence of Peter Lilley and Donald Dewar. I wouldn't count on it.

There are good young people, but they are highly frustrated. I could name half a dozen 30- to 40-ish Tories with first-class minds and experience of the outside world who, after three years in Parliament, still haven't made it to the point where they are the privileged custodians of a very small ministerial car and a very large pile of files on social security. If Labour wins the election, some of these people will be nearing 50 before they are in junior office.

Meanwhile our MP of the future will be allowed neither a private sex life nor a decent family life: the first because of the sordid intrusions of the media, the second because of the Ten O'Clock Rule and all its works. And finally, should he or she make an honest bob on the side to supplement their pounds 33,000, they will be treated as crooks and felons until they demonstrate otherwise.

"There's no lack of candidates ..." Of course not, nor will there be. Petty politicos will never be wanting. In extremis, you could draft them in by the pub-load. But if you want people, of whatever persuasion, with the intelligence, experience, imagination, and trans-party wisdom to undertake the sort of radical reforms Britain is going to need to prevent us mouldering gently into a sort of Greater Denmark, it is time to think about the radical restructuring of Parliament. An institution which cannot bring itself to question its own semi-defunct practices is unlikely to perceive the need for change outside.

As someone who has spent many years abroad, in France and the USA as well as China and Russia, I am the last to suggest importing foreign models, having seen at first handtheir limitations. There is ancient wisdom in Parliament; it is a matter of sifting out the venerable tomfoolery. When the Jopling reforms came in recently - minor and overdue measures designed to limit sittings after 10pm - it was gravely suggested that they could damage Conservatives in opposition: we would find it more difficult to spring a "late-night ambush" on Labour. Schoolboy talk, you might say, and you would be right.

Mind-sets can do more damage than ritual, and the left/right mind-set remains as deeply entrenched as the Ten O'Clock Rule. The Liberal Democrats have done little to break the mould. The point is not to obscure the differences by saying things with a vaporous appeal to the public, but to prevent Parliament engaging in a left/right complicity of silence about our national problems. And chief amongst these are education, housing, taxation and the welfare state.

AT THE first sign of the left/right dam crumbling - and I pay tribute to Tony Blair in that regard - politicians on both sides call for urgent measures to shore it up, lest reason and rationality submerge us all. What more fatuous phrases are there than "the duty of an Opposition is to oppose", or "the search for clear blue water"?

If Labour won, and Tony Blair had the vision and audacity to appoint Mr Frank Field as secretary of state for social services, and Mr Field's reforms were opposed by his own side, would Conservatives vote against their principles to bring down Mr Blair? Of course they would, as Labour tried to do over Europe. That is the genius and superiority of the British parliamentary system.

In The Condemned Playground (suggestive title!) Cyril Connolly wrote of England: "Revolutions do not happen in this country, but every now and then the public gives a great heave of boredom and impatience and something is done for ever." As an eternal optimist, I fancy I can sense that great heave, like some gigantic yawn, coming on.

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