Britain’s Speaker Crisis

Politics is practiced by a group Orson Welles liked calling the third sex.  And that third variant of gender is not very popular in Britain at the moment.  The expenses crisis threatens to submerge Parliament, as if it did not already have enough problems in the public eye.

Allegations of an inappropriate use of expenses, notably the MP tax-free allowance for second homes, is now seen as the stuff not merely of the Brown government, but all parties.  The House of Commons suddenly looks like a truly criminal class, shabby and distinctly unsavoury.  The political ‘system’ is being hauled out and savaged, and the need for complete reform, pressing.

The problem is seen as even more acute, given that no true separation of powers exists between the various arms of government in Westminster.  Legal, legislative and executive functions are funneled through an all-powerful Parliament.  In other systems, as Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham puts it (Guardian, May 17), dubious heads of state can be confronted by a vigilant congress; corrupt ministers dispatched by judicial inquiry while legislators ‘properly paid and staffed do not depend on party leaderships for preferment.’

Blood is being sought in what is being termed a moral fit, and it looks like a suitable target, at least for many, is the Speaker of the House.  This, in itself, is hardly fair (others Speakers did nothing to reform the expenses aspect of the House), but fairness is rarely, if ever, a yardstick in assessing political behaviour.

Set for the chop, the Speaker Michael Martin is clinging on – barely.  As one who speaks not merely to all sides of Parliament, but for Parliament, there is a feeling that his time has come.  He does, afterall, chair the members estimates committee.  But the refusal by all sides of the House, through party functionaries and leaders, to even discuss the issue in a coherent, systematic way, has crippled his case.  Nor has the time taken by Sir Christopher Kelly, civil servant appointed to review the state of expenses, helped.  Far easier for the English establishment (Martin is Glaswegian), still marked by the public school net, to look for a ritual purge as the ship sinks.

Martin’s panacea, set out in his statement on May 18, is more chatter, a meeting ‘as a matter of urgency, and within 48 hours’ of the Prime Minister and party leaders, to meet with members of the the House of Commons commission.  All members of parliament bore ‘heavy responsibility for the terrible damage to the reputation of the house.  We must do everything we possibly can to regain the trust and confidence of the people.’

Martin is certainly right about starting a conversation that members refuse to have.  But he has been dimissed roundly, to use Bruce Anderson’s words in The Independent (May 18) as a ‘painful mediocrity who stumbles from truculence to self-pity’.

Such events could not have happened at a worse time.  While minor parties stand to benefit from the rot, beware what sort of parties they might be.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and often fills it with an assortment of nasties.  Members of the BNP will be thrilled to bits and will no doubt be hoping that Kelly takes as long as he likes with his review.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com


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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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