Complaints about ‘sleaze’ at Westminster ring hollow – they’re just not trying to hide it anymore
Ifan Morgan Jones
The sudden outburst of concern by opposition parties in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying row that there is something rotten in the Palace of Westminster rings rather hollow.
The funny thing about the whole lobbying scandal is that the rules are so incredibly lax to begin with. Despite committing an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, Owen Paterson was only facing a 30-day suspension.
A quick look at Hansard will show that before yesterday, Owen Paterson had for years quite frequently gone stretches of three to nine months without speaking in the Commons at all.
The only thing that changed yesterday – and made the main opposition parties react with fake alarm – was that the government stopped pretending to care about MPs lobbying as a problem.
Rather than just not doing anything about lobbying, Westminster wasn’t even pretending to bother to do anything about lobbying.
The government were comfortable enough in power with their 80 seat majority that they didn’t really care who knew that the rules were drawn up and dropped to suit themselves.
But if parties really were serious about getting to grips with the issue, they would not allow MPs to take second jobs at all.
If someone wants to carry on being a GP, fine. But what possible justification is there for an MP, elected to serve their constituents, to take on multiple roles with different private businesses?
How can that not be a distraction at best, and a conflict of interest at worst? They should be there to represent their constituents and that should be their one and only priority.
Despite this, nearly one in five MPs take on regular paid work outside Westminster.
I don’t remember any one of the big three parties campaigning to change this.
The rot – both figurative and literal, given that Westminster is quite famously falling down – is now so seeped into the foundations of the building that they’re part and parcel of the whole edifice.
If you think the House of Commons is bad, have you met the House of Lords? Here party donors are directly elevated to non-elected positions crafting our legislation.
Just in the last decade, people who have donated a combined £50.4m to the three main political parties have been given peerages.
There really is no need for brown envelopes when this system operates in plain sight, everyone knows about it and no one seems to see it as a problem.
Although they may hold their nose at current events in the House of Commons, all the main UK-wide political parties have been complicit in the continuation of this system.
You would think that having a non-elected second chamber would be enough of an aberration against democracy in itself. In any other country it would be rightly considered to be the mark of a banana republic.
But a non-elected second chamber where you can, with enough millions, effectively buy your way in is particularly abhorrent.
But Westminster gets away with it because the rules have developed in such a higgledy-piggledy way over centuries that no one has to take responsibility for the status quo.
That’s why Westminster looks like a medieval palace despite only being built 150 years ago. That’s why it’s full of deliberately complex, unwritten conventions that can be dropped when amenable to those with power.
It’s ‘tradition’ and we have to be ‘very careful’ about ‘cross-party reform’. This is code for ‘actually this system suits up very well so we’re not going to do anything about it’.
The whole point of the ‘ancient’ persona of the parliament is not to change and in not to change to retain power within the hands of a particular wealthy elite.
Can Westminster reform itself? Probably not. Because anyone wielding power at Westminster has won as a result of the way Westminster currently operates.
The main attraction of Welsh and Scottish independence is that it’s the one kind of reform of Westminster that doesn’t involve Westminster at all.
It’s a surgery in which this blackened, corrupted carbuncle is just cut off in one fell swoop, from without.
The Welsh and Scottish Parliament are already more functional and democratic than Westminster has ever been.
They do have their problems. Both they and their governments have recently had very high profile issues with their own standards committees. They require detailed scrutiny – from their own politicians and the media – that particularly in Wales isn’t always there.
But they at least have proportional representation. They do not have unelected second chambers. They have a modern, forward-thinking attitude to technological reform.
They’re not perfect. But at least seem to function, to a certain extent, in the interests of the public.
This is more than could currently be said at Westminster, which increasingly seems to serve as a thin veneer of democracy for those who wish to wield power, with what few rules there are changed at a whim to suit themselves.
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