Monday, November 16, 2009

"Because the stakes are so low.."

Although the attribution is contested, the aphorism "Academic politics is the most bitter and vicious form of politics, because the stakes are so low" is nowadays usually credited to Wallace Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia in the mid sixties.

British politics is increasingly shrill, and as we enter the long run into the general election in 2010, it is already clear that we can expect the battle between Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron to be one of the dirtiest campaigns on record. Yet in fact, although the struggle may be noisy, in the end it may ultimately change very little. The problem is now not so much the party of government, but the system of government that offers up such limited political choices. The current government has governed by ignoring the will of Parliament and the Conservatives, with their cosmetic commitment to local devolution will inflict further damage on Parliamentary authority. Of course, many will say that the expenses scandal means that Parliament has brought this upon itself.

Yet the fact is that we face a crisis of the constitution. The fundamental basis of our democracy is under attack. The increasing lack of accountability of government to anyone except itself is creating unresponsive and occasionally despotic decision making. The lack of privacy of citizens in the face of state snooping is already undermining the fundamental ideas of our constitution. Our intrusive libel system is undermining the right to free speech. The public sector expenses dwarf those of Parliament, and they remain unchallenged.

The immediate response to the expenses scandal has been to ask MPs to wear a hair shirt, and for a while this is certainly appropriate. However the fact is it is absurd to pay MPs less than an executive at a medium sized council. With many people at the state owned broadcaster, the BBC, being paid more than the Prime Minister, we are at least entitled to question whether these priorities are morally right, never mind whether they are a good use of taxpayers and license payers money. The loose expenses regime was an attempt to compensate MPs when it proved politically inconvenient to pay them the salaries of comparable civil servants. Yet the Office expenses, as opposed to the living expenses, while they may seem lavish in monetary terms are barely enough to deal employ enough staff to run a constituency office on top of a secretary at Westminster. A few intern style researchers is hardly lavish when compared to the resources available to most other democratic Parliamentarians. Of course this suits the government of the day very well, because greater resources available to MPs would allow them to impose greater oversight over the administration.

And that is what is needed. The Labour government has rammed through expensive and ill thought out legislation at a truly hectic rate- guillotining and curtailing discussion as it thought fit. The government has passed more criminal justice legislation in twelve years than was thought necessary throughout the twentieth century- and much of this legislation requires repeated amendment to get it to work. Parliamentarians- under resourced and whipped in by the parties- have an ever decreasing input into the legislation that under our constitution they are supposed to author and to scrutinise.

The evidence is growing that Mr. Cameron's instincts are to be equally contemptuous of the House of Commons- to the great detriment of our democracy. Changing the party of government will not restore the democratic power of the legislature, but increase the unelected patronage of Quangos and lobbyists- of which of course Mr. Cameron was once one himself.

The election will be shrill, but unless the power of the House of Commons can be restored, it will indeed be a battle of low stakes, for membership of Parliament will continue to be a matter of opprobrium, while it ill only be being a member of the government that will be a matter of power- and as Peter Mandelson repeatedly proves, you don't have to be elected to have that.

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