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mp expenses

Weimar Parliament.

What do you do when the entire political system is exposed as corrupt? When one side is as bad as the other? The point of democracy is for the people to throw out the bad guys and bring in a new broom. But what if the broom has already been smeared with muck even before it has swept in? Who do you vote for now?

Many of us can still recall the naive optimism we felt after the Labour election landslide of May 1997. As Tory ministers fell like ninepins, it looked as if the age of sleaze was finally over; that the political system had worked and cleared out a corrupt and backwardlooking regime. How we cheered when Michael Portillo fell to Stephen Twigg. We talked of “people power” echoing the popular revolutions that destroyed the corrupt communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
There would be an end to MPs moonlighting as paid lobbyists and consultants to big companies. There would be an end to the unelected House of Lords There would be devolution of power to Scotland – well that happened at least, We genuinely believed that a new generation had taken over the reigns of power, one which understood the lives of ordinary people and did not rest on privilege and connections. It was not about class, anymore, it was about people.
And, though it seems incredible now, Tony Blair seemed like a new kind of politician, who spoke the modern language of democracy and wasn’t hidebound by class. A beacon of probity who promised to be ^whiter than white; purer than pure”. Then came Iraq, cash for honours, holidays with Silvio Berlusconi and a job with a big bank. The irony of course is that it is not plunging the nation into an illegal war that has finally done for Labour, but expenses. And it is “moral compass” Gordon who has had to carry the can. Not flash – just finished.
How did we get here? How did Labour get here? The Prime Minister has tried to deflect anger from his administrtion by insisting that all parties are in this together – and they clearly are. However, as the government of the day, Labour can’t escape a disproportinate share of the responsibility for this epic scandal. After all, it was Labour who promised to clean up politics; they have been in power for 12 years and can hardly blame the other lot now.
And, for heaven’s sake, they are the LABOUR Party – the party of the dispossessed, not the party of the must-haves. There is something doubly shocking about Labour MPs, most of whom came into politics because they wanted a more equal society, behaving like a bunch of avaricious used car dealers; fiddling their expenses to secure a lavish lifestyle at public expense. Somehow, it seems less morally offensive, more natural, when it is Tory MPs that are revealed to be obsessed the trappings of wealth.
Which raises the question ,of course, about whether David Cameron’s lot are going to be any better. Which is worse: Shahid Malik’s two grand telly or Douglas Hogg cleaning his moat at public expense? I’m genuinely not sure. Cameron reminds me very much of the people who launched Innocent Smoothies – pretty decent chaps, who then sold out to Coca Cola. Tories are generally thought to be less corrupt because they have more money – but that can just mean that they want even more than Labour.
Everyone has been saying that Cameron has started sounding Prime Ministerial in this crisis, and it’s true that he has shown a readiness to lead. And to face up to the responsibilities of leadership, which in his case meant depriving certain MPs of their jobs, if not their constituencies. He sacrificed his close parliamentary adviser, Andrew McKay after it was discovered that he had done a ‘double flip” with his MP wife, the former Daily Telegraph parliamentary hack, Julie Kirkbride. They had turned both their homes into ‘second’ homes to double up on the second homes allowance – potentially £48,000 a year. Cameron certainly caught the publc mood by announcing that he didn’t care if it was within the rules – it was wrong .
But a lot of people in his party don’t agree with him. More meritocratic Tories will feel that its ok for well-heeled, Eton-educated Cameron to get all high and mighty about expenses – he’s rich enough to do without them. We still know very little about the creatures that lurk on the Tory backbenches – though it is clear that they are mostly very far to the right of Cameron. This is because so many more moderate Conservatives – like er Michael Portillo – lost their seats in the Labour landslide elections.
We have to hope they are better, but we have no real grounds for believing that the Tories, even under Cameron, will be any different from the Tories under John Major. They may be even worse – eurosceptic, anti-Scottish, privatisers out to destroy the NHS. Given Labour’s complete moral implosion, the opposition will be in dissaray for a generation as Labour tries to rediscover its soul. So the Tories will have an easy ride. The Liberal Democrats have lost most of their radical gloss and seem to behave more like soft Conservatives.
In Scotland, of course, there has always been the alternative of the SNP who have so far largely managed to escape the Daily Telegraph inquisition. Though Angus Robertson, the MP for Moray, was fingered for buying a home cinema system and Alex Salmond tried unsucessfully to put drinks from a hotel minibar on the public tab. But they have long argued for transparency in Westminster and more importantly, are never going to be the government there. It will either be Labour or the Tories: fiddledum or fiddledee.
Some have described this as Britain’s Weimar moment, when the people finally lost faith in parliamentar democracy. This is something of an insult to the democratic German governments in the 1920who faced a much worse economic crisis and yet sparked a cultural and artistic renaissance. Unfortunately they did hand over to Adolph Hitler. Not willingly, of course: the Nazis were elected by free and open ballot by the German people who were fed up with the economic depression.
It has to be said. though, that there are very few charismatic leaders of right or left around right now bidding for power. The communists and the nazis were heavily organised in Weimar Germany, and there was a clash of ideologies that affected every aspect of public life. There is no such political dichotomy today – no party advocating revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, even though capitalism is manifestly in a bad way. Nor, thankfully is there any party promoting the racial superority of the Ayrian race. The BNP is more like Richard Littlejohn than Heinrich Goebbles. They have turned themselves into a kind of New Fascist party, with a leader, Nick Griffin, who has a lot of the manners of Tony Blair. And of course, Gordon Brown has pinched their slogan: “British jobs for British workers”. Nor is UKIP – the UK Independence Party – going to launch any revolutions either. Which leaves the Greens.
The Greens are the forgotten party of dissentm, but very very far from power. And while a vote for the Greens will never be wa wasted vote, it will not alter the character of British politics. I don’t want to sound too gloomy here, but this really might be a genuine crisis for the parliamentary system. Unless Westminster reforms itself utterly, and immediately, the people will turn away from representative democracy and onto Facebook. Well, it could be worse.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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