Tuesday 19 May 2009

A Question of Honour

And now we see the dreadful reality of it, from top to tail. A discredited Speaker turns to the Clerks for help, even as he desperately clings to the chair. He has been a straw man for Labour so long that he barely recalls the nuances of Parliamentary procedure – if he ever understood them. And why should he? The traditions of the place are ancient, evolved over centuries to ensure a level playing field – to allow men of honour, elected by the people, to hold the Government to account.

Where are these men of honour now? Not on the Government benches, that much is certain. Our Ministers are appointed by a Prime Minister whose similarities to speaker Martin go far beyond the shared roots of Scottish Labour. Unelected, the Prime Minister treats the electorate with contempt. He is a laughing stock, domestically and internationally. He talks unceasingly of his moral compass, of his childhood – and yet he has no shame. If this son of the manse retains anything from his upbringing it is hard to see it. Over 50,000 of the electorate are calling openly for his resignation and what are we told? "Complaints" – he says– "Will be dealt with in the usual fashion". This is not honour. This is Yeats "brazen throat", who:

"Were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbours eyes"

Little wonder, with a shameless Prime Minister, that so many of those continuing today in Government with Brown - writing the laws which we are to live by - have been caught with their metaphorical hands in the till, helping themselves to public money by misrepresentation or even fraud. Little wonder, perhaps, that such behaviour has been widespread across a Parliament which has lost its way in the face of an overbearing executive.

For the point which is clear to everybody except the Parliamentarians themselves is this – the expenses scandal is not about the system, not about the second homes allowance or the fees office that pays it – nor yet about the level of MP's salaries. These are topics for another time. The public are angry and disappointed by the dishonesty of our Parliamentarians as individuals. We expect parties to organise along political lines – that is what "party interest" is about – but when push comes to shove we expect our MP's to put the public interest before their own, and to face the consequences when they fall short. If we do not have honour in Parliament, we have nothing. It is an empty place, devoid of authority, and – for as long as it continues – it brings shame and dishonour upon the country it exists to serve.

Sir Patrick Cormack referred yesterday to the Norway debate, and the parallels are striking. In 1940 the discredited Chamberlain – like Brown – tried to turn his own mistakes into a justification for clinging on to power. Having allowed the country to face a grave military emergency unprepared, he told them that this was "no time for a change". Relying upon his "friends in the house", in the Norway debate, he found that he had fewer than he thought. Parliament acted with honour, and Chamberlain was shown the door. If such honour existed in Parliament today, the Cabinet would already be half empty, and we would not have been treated to the unedifying spectacle we saw yesterday afternoon.

And in this – so far as it goes – Cameron is showing honesty where the other leaders dare not follow. By backing the popular wish for an immediate General Election, he is ensuring that all MP's (and many of his own will hate this) face their Electors with their sins fresh in the popular mind. He will lose some of his own friends in Parliament, but unlike Brown, Martin or Clegg he is publicly recognising that we need to address the individual honour of Parliamentarians, before we proceed to fix their bookkeeping system. He is willing to hand back power to the people when it really counts. It may, on balance, serve him politically to do so, but it is no less a service to democracy for all that.

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