Parliament must not be run by an outsider

Sir Edward Heath explains why he disagrees with Lord Nolan's report, and defends the integrity and honesty of almost all the politicians he has known
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The Independent Online
It is not possible for me to talk about Parliament without referring to my political beliefs. From my earliest days I have been a Conservative, and central to this has been an attachment to the ideals of freedom, pragmatism and tolerance. Looking back to earlier periods, we were a very tolerant party. In fact, both parties were tolerant. Sometimes this is missing today. Let us not try to hide this fact. It is true very often in the House of Commons.

One of the problems that I am asked about today is the question of constitutional government. Now one of the things about the Conservative Party is that you can summarise it by saying it is pragmatic and not dogmatic, and when we have got into trouble in recent years it is because we have been dogmatic instead of being pragmatic. This has led us in the recent past to make changes for the sake of change, instead of only changing where it has become obvious that it is necessary.

If one looks at the parliamentary system, nobody can deny it is thoroughly over-worked. As a result a great deal of legislation passes through without full analysis and criticism. This is what gets us in trouble so often. If we could get a parliamentary system in which proper time could be devoted to these things, we would resolve many of the problems of the current period. This would help us to deal with some of the difficulties that cause so many anxieties to the public as far as Parliament is concerned. Of course, if Parliament is reformed and Members aren't kept working well into the night, they wouldn't be kept away from their wives so much. This can't be a bad thing ...

Naturally, one cannot talk about Parliament without touching on the question of sovereignty. Until the past couple of years of Euro-scepticism, there were not many people in this country who were prepared to sit down at dinner and argue about sovereignty. In the pubs around Salisbury, I find that the people aren't actually discussing sovereignty. The plain fact is that when I stand at the bar and order my drinks, the chap next door doesn't turn to me and say: "Look, I'm worried about sovereignty!" What he says is: "What the hell do you think your Government is doing about so and so!"

Now, sovereignty exists for the good of the people. That is its purpose, and there can be no other justification for it. Sovereignty is not something you put down in the cellar, and then go down once a week with a candle to see if it is still there - as you do your gold reserves. If the people benefit from the pooling of sovereignty, as they have in the case of our membership of Nato or the European Union, then we should do so. Under the terms of our Nato membership, an attack on one country is seen as an attack on all, and there can be no greater sharing of sovereignty than this.

What I am saying is that we need a pragmatic approach to Parliament that is driven by the practicalities of the situation. I am afraid that the recent Nolan report fails to address this aspect of the matter. Personally, I don't believe that outsiders should run Parliament. Members know far more about what is happening in the House than any bureaucrat from outside could ever learn. A line must be drawn. If we cannot run our own affairs, how can we run other people's affairs? How can we legislate for the country, if it is judged that we need an outsider to legislate for us?

Furthermore, it is essential that we keep matters in perspective. I have been an elected Member of Parliament for 45 years, and I have rarely encountered cases of wrong-doing by my colleagues on either side of the House. Most of those I have served with have been men and women of integrity and honesty, and this continues to be so today. On the few occasions when Members have transgressed, as in the put-up job by the Sunday Times, they have been dealt with promptly and effectively. In this recent case, the Members concerned were suspended and they lost their salaries during that period. That was certainly as much as any outside body could have recommended.

When it comes to the gross intrusions into privacy over what the remuneration is of Members who are engaged in outside activities, then I believe this is entirely unjustified. Members already disclose their outside activities in the register of interests. If they have a directorship or a consultancy, or they have sponsorship from an organisation, it is all there. I think that the current settlement is a perfectly adequate way to ensure that proper parliamentary conduct and standards are maintained.

My final point on this subject is one of caution and warning. Those of you who have studied American politics and Congress carefully know that after Watergate there was a complete change in the attitude of serious and responsible people towards politics in their country. With the increase in intrusion into the lives of politicians and their families, and the continuing erosion of their privacy, many talented people were no longer prepared to take any part in politics.

There are Americans I know who have said: "I'm not going to have my family treated in the way Nixon's family was treated and as a result I'm not going into politics or into Congress." That is a lamentable loss for the United States as a whole. I am afraid that the same thing could happen here.

You would not get people who have responsibilities, and are prepared to give service, coming into Parliament under the conditions proposed by the Nolan report. People with outside interests would remain outside politics, and there would be a clear separation of these two worlds. As a result, the standard of Parliament will inevitably fall, and will continue to fall. Our country and our fellow citizens will be the sufferers.

This article is an edited version of a lecture given on Wednesday at the Carlton Club.