Remembering the meaning of disgrace

The Commons must fight against scandal - or accept its second- division status in the new Britain
Click to follow
In the end, this cash-for-questions furore is about authority, the Constitution. Speaker Boothroyd, the nation's matron, was firm and fast in ordering a new inquiry and a debate. Sir Gordon Downey, the parliamentary ombudsman, has been seen slipping in and out of Westminster, tight-jawed and thin-lipped, the very model of a Victorian public servant.

Inside the Palace, committee-men have scurried silently to promise him whatever powers he requires. On the BBC, Tory MPs such as Iain Duncan- Smith, who we generally hear speaking fluent Young-Turkish, have sounded grave and statesperson-like.

Across the land, the message has gone out: the Commons will reassert her ancient dignity in the face of all these unseemly newspaper allegations about lobbyists, brown envelopes, grinning men in bow ties, and arm-twisting whips. The snook-cockers shall be punished. Yea, and the sleazeballs and tenner-pocketers will be cleansed from the High Court of Parliament.

It is, is it not, a breast-swelling example of the British system in action, doing for us in the Nineties in a minor way what the Spithead Review did a century ago?

I am not being entirely satirical. The lesson of the past couple of years isn't only that politicians do bad things, and are found out; it is that Parliament - eventually - reacts. The Nolan inquiry, and the rule- changes that followed it, were big events in the 20th-century history of the Commons.

Will they go further? The first problem concerns misbehaving backbenchers. The Constitution has assumed for centuries that Members are Honourable Members and cannot be easily punished or reined in. Indeed, an assembly of individuals who could be easily punished, not merely by the party whips, but by the state, would not be a free parliament .

So it has taken a long time for a system of sanctions and penalties to develop; and it is sad that it has been necessary. Parliament has always had and used sanctions, particularly in barring misbehaving MPs from the premises.

The problem is a modern one not only because we have had some egregious examples of greed and corner-cutting in the past few years, but because the social norms that controlled public behaviour have dissolved. Once, disgrace was disgrace. Once, a rogue MP would be ''cut'', disappearing into obscurity or resigning from pure shame. Once, too, it would have been impossible to imagine a merchant bank trader, criticised by the Bank of England and sacked after her bank's collapse, claiming a pounds 500,000 bonus at an industrial tribunal.

No longer. Peregrine Worsthorne, the Sunday Telegraph's High Tory columnist, put it well last weekend: ''Being disgraced is no longer what it was ... Social ostracism is a thing of the past. It would be surprising, for example, if Neil Hamilton is required to resign from his clubs or is invited to fewer parties. Quite probably, he will be invited to more, since nowadays a whiff of scandal is more social asset than liability ...''

This means that the old clubman-Commons, relying essentially on Perry's world of ''chaps' rules'', is dead. If standards are to be maintained, or rather, perhaps, reintroduced, harsher formal penalties may be required.

They exist. It is well known that MPs can be rebuked, suspended and - if bankrupt - removed. But they can also be sacked for misbehaviour. This last happened in October 1947 when one Garry Allighan wrote an article, I believe accusing other MPs of taking cash from newspapers, and was chucked out after a vote called by one Quintin Hogg. It may be time for chucking out to return

That would be easy enough to achieve in principle. But there is a bigger threat to the Commons' reputation than backbench misconduct. It is that Parliament has, for so long, been so hopelessly compromised by the executive. Ministers change the rules, bend the rules, refuse Parliament the truth, and put savage pressure on individuals and sometimes on Commons officials. Government, with its huge reserves of people and information, stoked up with impatience of executive authority, has been Parliament's toughest rival.

The behaviour of individual MPs in the Hamilton affair may have been bad. But worse, to my mind, is the charge that the Government, through David Willetts, now Paymaster General but then a whip, arm-twisted a Commons committee to try to stifle the growing scandal. We should be in no doubt: Speaker Boothroyd's decision to allow an emergency debate on this today is an important moment.

Why? Because it touches directly on the pride of the Commons, and its constitutional independence, at a time when all are tumbling into history. Parliament has lost authority to the judiciary and power to the institutions of the EU. It has lost its unique place as a forum for national debate to the broadcasters and press. Above all, though, it has been cheerfully trampled on by successive governments.

At some point, the Commons must choose between fighting back or finally accepting its second-division status in the new Britain. Perhaps we have reached it.

Chucking out the odd bad apple would be a shocking and salutary move. But if MPs are really serious about their purpose, this emergency debate on executive bullying is more important still. Euro-sceptics want Parliament to regain its lustre by fighting Brussels. But the real battle is nearer to home, and about British government. And it can start today.