After taking an age to respond, with Labour still yet to make anything like the stand which the Conservatives have, you have to wonder whether what began as a crisis in politicians rather than necessarily in parliament itself has started to get out of hand. Not because the proposals for more general reform, especially those set out today by David Cameron, are too radical, but instead because they don't seem to be actually targeting what enraged the public in the first place: personal enrichment rather than general democratic failings.
One of the things that few commentators seem to have attempted to adequately answer is why the expenses debacle, rather than other recent general failures, whether you include the Iraq war, the previous loans for coronets scandal, or more recently the banking collapse and with it the breakdown of what had been a consensus of how the country could be run, has been the straw that broke the camel's back. The former and the latter have cost and will cost sums that dwarf the money which MPs have claimed for second houses, duck houses or duck a l'orange, while our involvement in Iraq has directly cost the lives of thousands, and indirectly hundreds of thousands, and from which it will take our reputation decades to recover.
Certainly, part of it is just a logical progression from the rage that was briefly directed at bankers, although again their greed puts MPs' second home allowances and other perks into stark contrast, albeit bankers were then not using public money for their bonuses. Recessions often are cathartic, and the anger and bitterness that come with the sudden change in circumstances has to be directed somewhere, but at MPs as a whole rather than just at a set of individuals within a party or at one party in particular is something new. Admittedly, this has been building for some time, as more and more, again admittedly with some justice, have started decrying politicians as all the same. Still though this alone doesn't quite explain why the loathing has reached such a crescendo. We seem to want our MPs both to be above the kind of temptations which befall many of us mere mortals, while also being as normal as politicians can be. When it turns out that MPs are, unsurprisingly, just as liable to bend the rules as far as they can go as the rest of us are, for which they should nontheless be condemned, it still seems completely disproportionate for them to come in for the savaging which has been raining down on their heads now for close to 3 weeks.
From this has spawned the obvious look for quick fixes to a system which has been broken for quite some time. The real demand though seems to be far more simple: everyone out, and everyone out now. This is something that the current politicians are hardly likely to accede to, and so there has to be an alternative found. Those who have long sought reform for principles both pure and personal have also found a perfect opportunity to perhaps finally get their way, echoing the Rahm Emanuel quote that you should not let a good crisis go to waste. All this though seems to be ignoring what the public themselves want: they mostly don't seem to care about the inner workings of parliamentary committees or what votes are whipped and which aren't; they just want the rotten out and a new lot in and to let them work it out.
All of us are however making numerous assumptions here. Fact is, we simply don't know how this is going to pan out; it might yet peter out as the Telegraph's revelations eventually do, or it might keep going until an election has to sort it out. This is why the most attractive proposal of all so far has been Alan Johnson's, for a referendum on proportional representation to be held at the same time as that election. That will fundamentally answer the question on whether the thirst for reform is long lasting and thoughtful or short and ugly.
It's also instructive that proportional representation is one of the few things that David Cameron has actively ruled out, in what has been variously described as either the most radical thing ever, "the spirit of Glasnost", as Cameron's Guardian article rather pompously puts it, or more plausiably, as politics having gone soft in the head. Instructive in that it's one of the few things that genuinely would change the way politics is run, while Cameron's other lauded promises, or not even that, potential aspirations are tinkering at the edge. Some of his proposals are simply laughable, such as the idea that the person who currently employs Andy Coulson as his chief spin doctor is going to be the one that puts an end to sofa government, promised by Brown and also broken. He wants to end the quangocracy without naming a single one which he actually plans to abolish, as so do many others who rant against them. He wants to tackle the power grabs by the EU and judges, without leaving Europe and without withdrawing presumably from the ECHR, making the ripping up of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British bill of rights an utter waste of time. Then there is just the madness of ultra-Blairism still writ large within the Cameroons: ending the "state monopoly" in education, which is in actual fact local authority control, giving parents the power to set up their own schools, as if they have the time or will to do so. The similar powers on housing seem to be a recipe for banana-ism: build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything, while on policing seem destined to result in the futility of "bobbies on the beat" while politicising the organisation. He meanwhile has nothing whatsoever to say on Lords reform, the monarchy or on the anachronisms of Westminster itself which seem to be kept only so that tourists can experience the quaint old-worldiness of the mother of all parliaments.
Cynicism is easy, but it's difficult not to be when you reflect of how many in opposition have promised reform along these lines only for it not to materialise once power has been grabbed and when such changes are no longer so attractive. You can't help but think all we might eventually get from Cameron's changes are the schools and parliamentary debate on YouTube; that again though, might all be the public themselves want. It's difficult not to reflect that the old adage we get the politicians and politics we deserve still rings as true as ever.
Labels: Conservatives, constitutional reform, David Cameron, expenses, MPs expenses, politics, proportional representation, public opinion, the new Blairites