Calling an event or sequence of events ‘historic’ is often the last resort of the lazy and the unimaginative and yet no other adjective seems to fit the week we have just stumbled through. A week that began with the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons and ended with the world inside the Westminster bubble turned upside down.
Speaker Michael Martin handed in his resignation following a poor performance in the chair during a debate on his own future that was different from his last poor performance only in that he didn’t end up firing insults at Kate Hoey. All the other elements anyone with a passing interest in democracy has come to know and not like about Mr Martin, partisanship, confusion and a not at all hidden sense that everyone was out to get him. Well this time they were, and get him they duly did.
In what must be one of the shortest resignation speeches recorded by Hansard Mr Martin said he had ‘always felt the house to be at its best when it is united.’ Unity, of course, being something the house could never hope to achieve with a man who had mounted a Cnut style campaign against the tide of public opinion in the Speaker’s chair.
The beach against which the tide of public opinion has spent much of the past two weeks battering itself against is the staggering capacity of our elected representatives for fiddling their expenses claims. These people didn’t just put the odd Kit-Kat of blue movie watched by their other half (in a moment of madness of course, politicians and their significant other or someone else’s significant other never seem to do the wrong thing in any other sort of moment) on the public tab, they put the kitchen sink in both their houses on it too.
The flood of revelations about how dishonourable some honourable members have been has thrown up some interesting flotsam and jetsam. Three senior members of the Labour cabinet have been caught out not paying capital gains tax on the profits they made on selling houses the public had helped to pay part of the mortgage on, they didn’t, they have all protested, break the rules and anyway they paid the money back so let’s forget about the whole thing. Not likely chum. I was acting within the rules looks likely to join ‘I was only following orders’ in the pantheon of excuses that tend only to confirm the guilt of the person by whom they are being made.
The prize for combining greed with a near total lack of self awareness goes to the hitherto unknown Tory MP Alan Steen, who put in a claim for the building of a ‘duck island’ at his country home to the Commons Fee’s Office. In another moment of madness they signed it off. When questioned about the matter by the BBC Mr Steen seemed more annoyed by the impertinence of the press asking why he had spent a hefty chunk of public money building a home for ducks when some of his constituents were struggling to keep a roof over their own heads.
In what was the most assured press conference he has given so far this year Gordon Brown, for whom interpreting the mood of the nation has been problematic of late, said that Westminster can no longer ‘operate like some gentleman’s club’, from now on MP’s will have to get used to no being able to decide on their own pay and expenses.
These are, and here comes another cliché that has risen to meet the moment, revolutionary times, life in the Westminster bubble may never be the same again. All week we have been warned that the simmering discontent over MP’s expenses could translate into votes and undeserved political legitimacy for a slate of extremist parties including the BNP.
We are, perhaps, making our own flesh creep a little unnecessarily over that prospect, while the BNP vote may rise on the back of dissatisfaction with the three main parties the majority of disenchanted voters will probably make their resentment known in the way the British almost always do, by staying away from the polling station in droves. The oafish Nick Griffin may have blagged himself an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, he may have to wait a little longer for the keys to Downing Street; like until Satan starts going to work on a snow plough.
Something profound has changed though in the way the British feel about politics and politicians, the MP’s who conspired to depose a commons speaker for the first time in more than three centuries got a whiff it, so did the people in the audience of the BBC’s Question Time who have shouted down MP’s representing all three main parties for two weeks in a row. Politics has to be in earnest now, Westminster is no longer a place where the mediocre or the borderline criminal can carve out a comfy niche, the people have had a taste of power and business as usual will never again be a viable option.
Quite where this will end I have no idea, most likely in a compromise of the sort for which we Britons are famous the world over, all that is certain is that whether they told the truth on their expenses forms or not our elected representatives as a whole, like the Magi in Eliot’s poem are ‘no longer at ease in the old dispensation’, and no more should they be.