Thursday, 28 May 2009

Citizen legislators and sonnets at dawn down Oxford way.

On Sunday, as the scandal over MP’s expenses lurched into its fourth week Conservative leader David Cameron set out his vision for a new and cleaner type of politics.

His recommendations included reducing the number of MP’s, setting up a service that would send text alerts to voters about the passage of bills through parliament, quite who, outside the usual suspects, policy wonks and the like, would want to be given an update by text about the progress of a bill to regulate the size of paperclips or something of that sort is a mystery, and opening the list of prospective Conservative parliamentary candidates to people with no previous involvement with the party.

This move, which garnered the most interest from the media, Mr Cameron assured the world was motivated by his deep belief in public service and a desire to fill the commons with people, head teachers, charity workers and the like, who want to ‘help clean up politics.

It was time, he said, to show the public that ‘politics really matters and this is the opportunity to do that.’

Quite so, politics does matter and the shabby fiddling of certain MP’s has done the reputation of the commons serious harm. Mr Cameron also has a point when he calls for more people with experience of life outside Westminster to enter the political fray, so why do his plans make me feel more than a little nervous?

While an influx of citizen legislators, as the Americans call such people, may be a good thing in some respects the presence of a large number of inexperienced people in parliament may be to the advantage of an incoming Cameron government because new MP’s are more likely to toe the party line than old hands.


The death of two British servicemen in Afghanistan over the weekend and that of a Royal Marine later in the week from injuries received in combat should serve to remind us there are more things to be concerned about than MP’s building homes for ducks at the public expense.

Following the first of the deaths, that of Fusilier Petro ‘Pat’ Suesue Captain Mark Durkin, a spokesman for British forces in the region said that Fusilier Suesue had died ‘helping to provide a brighter future for the Afghan people’, noble sentiments and unlike most of what has been said about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan free from spin.

You have to wonder at the waste of such courage and the suffering inflicted on the people of Afghanistan by politicians sleeping safe in their beds in London who are either unable or unwilling to provide the equipment and leadership to make them a reality.
All is not well, it seems, underneath the dreaming spires of Oxford, Ruth Padel has been forced to resign from her post as Professor of Poetry following allegations that she was involved in a campaign to smear another candidate for the distinguished position which was created in 1708 and has been held by Seamus Heaney, Matthew Arnold and WH Auden.

The candidate in question, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, had allegations of sexual harassment made against him whilst he was teaching at Harvard twenty five years ago made public and was obliged to withdraw from the race describing what had happened as ‘degrading character assassination.’

Ms Padel denies having anything to do with making the allegations public, although she admits to having talked to journalists about Walcott.

All this intrigue makes life at one of the country’s premier universities sound like an episode of Inspector Morse; Colin Dexter set his sublime mystery novels on Oxford of course, minus the dead body in the library, at least for the moment. In its way the thought of squabbling amongst the intellectual elite is quite amusing, at least it is if you don’t mind knowing that poets are just as capable of briefing against one another as politicians.

Quite how Oxford will choose the next person to sit in its poet’s chair or settle the matter of honour between Ms Padel and Mr Walcott in anybody’s guess; by sonnets at dawn perhaps?


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