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A parliament swept clean of ideas and principles

29 May 2009 - Bruno Prior

Something is starting to bother me about the MPs' expenses scandal. I do not defend those MPs who have taken advantage of the lax rules that they instituted. They should go.

But it is starting to feel to me that, for most people, this is the only measure of an MPs' worth that matters. The corollary of the public appetite for kicking out any MP tainted by corruption, is that squeeky-clean MPs may waltz back into their seats at the next election simply by virtue of their purity, regardless of their merits as representatives of their constituents on matters of public policy. Is financial probity really the limit of our expectations from our MPs?

Theresa May (my local MP) is a case in point. She is clean enough that the Tories are rolling her out in one after another media appearance on the topic. She has neither challenging opinions nor stimulating insights nor basic economic literacy, but is clean on expenses, and good at opening gymkhanas, kissing babies, and choosing her words carefully to maintain the impression in the constituency that she is a nice lady (she probably is, but is it that really an important qualification for the job?). She therefore looks likely to retain her seat with a big majority. But this is the woman who told her party that they shouldn't challenge the Government while it was busy wrecking our economy, for fear of being seen as "the nasty party", and who came out with the inane yet completely mistaken quote which I use as the yardstick of dumb political statements: "it's not about big government or small government, it's about good government." On the odd occasion when we have brought issues to her attention that affect not just our business (based in her constituency), but the wider economy, she has been either incapable or unwilling to acknowledge, let alone address the basic economic points that we were making, because (we strongly suspect) it would have required her to stand up for free-market principles that her party ought to support but were inconvenient to her/their political positioning.

The question of the lack of correlation between an MP's moral purity and their intellectual capability came to mind because it was reported today that Joanna Lumley has endorsed the Green Party for the coming European and local elections. That is Joanna's business, and people's business if they choose to see the endorsement of an actress who campaigned well in a popular and emotional cause as a good reason to vote for a communist programme (for the Greens are the true inheritors of the communist mantle) on a broad range of issues unrelated to Ms Lumley's recent focus.

But it was more surprising to learn that OpenEurope had given their stamp of approval to Caroline Lucas, leader of the Greens. OpenEurope are fighting a good fight against the undemocratic, centralizing, power-grabbing nature of the European Union. Dr Lucas and her party stand for greater use of those centralizing powers in the service of an enviro-communist agenda. But apparently that is not important to OpenEurope, compared to Dr Lucas's attendance, and voting record on questions of transparency and costs of running the European Parliament.

By contrast, Dan Hannan and Nigel Farage, two of the best MEPs in Brussels, and men who would significantly increase the calibre of representatives at Westminster should they find a way to get selected for winnable seats, were ranked by OpenEurope as 31st and 66th of our 78 UK representatives, because of their voting records on these narrow issues. And even on that measure, the assessment is unfair, as they have been two of the most active MEPs in fighting the encroachment of the EU on issues that ought to be devolved, and bringing to light and challenging the culture of entitlement at Brussels. But because they have missed several votes while trying to bring these issues to greater public attention in Britain (and admittedly voted somewhat eccentrically in the case of Hannan's attitude to tobacco subsidies), they are marked down. If OpenEurope are ranking Lucas well above Hannan and Farage, then the emphasis on transparency as the only issue that matters in politics has gone too far.

The point was also brought home to me recently, when I learnt that two guys who I have got to know a bit at a classical-liberal think-tank, who are presentable, personable, highly-principled, serious thinkers, cannot get selected as Conservative candidates in any constituency. They seem to me to have all the attributes that ought to matter in an MP, and are certainly of a higher standard than many on Cameron's A-list. I can only think that their adherence to classical-liberal principles and interest in the big issues as well as constituency minutiae are proving a serious impediment. If we want our MPs to be glorified councillors, then the constituency associations may have a point. That does seem to be what we are heading towards. But it does nothing for the quality of analysis and debate in parliament. And isn't that the really important job we need MPs to do?

Then there is the Jury Team - a "party" without principles, other than a commitment to clean government (where have we heard that promise before?). If you vote for them, you have no idea what programme of government you will get. yet they are attracting quite a bit of attention and approval from media and public.

-The Times- estimated that as many as 325 MPs may be kicked out at the next election (although this is as much to do with expectations of a big swing from Labour to Conservative as it is retribution for corruption). That's not enough. We don't need to harvest just those who are unfortunate enough to represent the wrong party in swing seats, and those who have been caught with their hands in the till. Can't we aim for 450 MPs, and also get rid of the namby-pampy, unchallenging politicians, who may be clean but are ill-equipped for the most important aspect of their jobs - rational and principled criticism in the development of their party's policies and holding the executive to account? Measured against our current priorities, how would most of our great politicians of earlier times have fared? Could we have had the strong leadership and big political change that we have needed from time to time and need again now, if we were represented by such a timid, anodyne and small-minded bunch as the media and public seem to want us to elect?

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