Knowledge that a secret exists is half of the secret, and Westminster loves nothing more than guessing what a secret might be. When The Spectator’s website revealed at 6 p.m. last Thursday that a major Conservative story was about to unfold, there was a flurry of frenzied speculation. One Cabinet member even called 10 Downing Street for clues. No one knew. Several theories were flying (George Osborne resigning, Samantha Cameron pregnant) yet none was as bizarre as the truth: a shadow cabinet member had just been arrested by anti-terror police in a leak inquiry.
Once, such a development would have sent Conservative central office into spasm. This time, Damian Green’s arrest was played to perfection. When the news broke at 9 p.m., David Cameron was declaring outrage at the police tactics. The word ‘Stalinist’ was quickly slipped into the news stream, a word which is second only to ‘Mr Bean’ in Westminster as code for Gordon Brown. Right on cue, the Prime Minister hit back by saying that the police should not be criticised. From that point on he was seen to be siding with the Metropolitan Police, and on the wrong side of an almighty row.
Even before the state opening of Parliament, MPs were gathering to plot protests — many butchly declaring that they would personally have tackled any police officer, had they seen one. But let us change the record and look at the Green arrest as a parable of something much greater, namely the state of the House of Commons. This leads us quickly to an unpalatable truth: that the worst blows to the reputation of Parliament have been dealt not by the Metropolitan Police but by MPs themselves. And their greatest failings lie not in what they have done (although voting to keep the John Lewis list was bad enough) but what they have failed to do: sins of omission not commission. Time after time, Parliament has had the chance to justify the many privileges afforded to its members. Time after time, it has failed.
Consider the banking bail-out, which Mr Brown announced in a triumphant, just-down-from-Mount-Sinai way two months ago. His package was worth some £500 billion, a third of Britain’s economic output, yet parliamentary scrutiny was restricted to a 45-minute debate. Americans could watch their Congressmen tear apart the Paulson Plan, demanding that the Bush administration justify every dollar it intended to borrow from the taxpayer. Britain, by sorry contrast, was simply asked to rejoice at the whole or part-nationalisation of five banks, rubber-stamped by an enfeebled legislature.
The Commons was in recess during much of the banking drama. It was in recess during the police raid. It is, in fact, in recess for some 18 weeks of the year. The new parliamentary session the Queen opened on Wednesday will have more holiday than any for almost 30 years. This Christmas MPs will be off for 24 days. The people whose taxes pay MPs’ salaries could only dream of such a holiday.
The issue of Baby P is another missed opportunity for Parliament. There is, to put it mildly, immense public interest — every day, councils decide whether to put children into care. The system failed in Haringey, and Ed Balls, the Children’s Secretary, is still refusing to release the full report that could tell us where precisely things went wrong. Barry Sheerman, chair of the children’s select committee, could easily summon the council workers involved in the tragedy to find out in detail what errors were made. Yet I gather he has refused requests from MPs to do just this.
Every so often, there are triumphs which show the power that Parliament can still wield. Frank Field has used the Commons library to become a one-man think-tank, and recently led a backbench rebellion which forced the government into a humiliating defeat over the 10p tax. The late Gwyneth Dunwoody would create merry hell for the government as chair of the transport committee, her success proven by Tony Blair’s thwarted attempts to remove her. Even having surrendered so much power to Brussels and the Celtic fringe, Westminster is not as impotent as it usually looks.
Here lies a distinct opportunity for David Cameron. There is plenty of intellectual energy in his own party, best exemplified by a recently published book called The Plan by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan. Its proposals include having select committee chairs elected by cross-party secret ballot and selecting MPs by open primaries, the method used to secure Boris Johnson’s nomination as Mayor of London. There is much fertile ground here — as Mr Cameron demonstrated when he delivered an important speech in Cardiff in March about ‘broken politics’, an attempt to plant a Union Jack squarely on an important part of Barack Obama’s campaign.
Just two years ago, Mr Brown was enthusing about reform. He became most keen on the Power Commission, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy and Ferdinand Mount, which concluded, ‘We have been struck by just how wide and deep is the contempt felt for formal politics in Britain.’ The apathy that politicians moaned about, it said, was actually nothing of the sort but rather a deep popular revulsion against Westminster. Mr Brown took all this to heart, and went through a phase of talking about harnessing wristband politics. Yet his initially grand talk of constitutional reform ended in little more than relinquishing the power to choose Anglican bishops.
The general public switched off some time ago. Most under-35s don’t vote, and the last two elections have seen the lowest turnout on record. Across Britain, just one in four say they trust Parliament, according to a European Commission poll taken last spring. The only Western European country to trust its parliament less is Italy, which (perhaps by no coincidence) is the only country to pay its politicians more than our £63,300 a year. What was once the most respected of all parliaments has become, quite literally, one of the least trusted legislatures on the Continent.
So Westminster is in a poor position to protest too loudly over the Met’s raid: its view of itself as a national treasure protected by sacred conventions is not universally shared. Also, partly thanks to MPs’ failure to check the growth of the state, government agencies now have 266 powers to draw upon to enter people’s homes (versus ten in the 1950s and 70 in the 1990s). Many people have felt the effects of the new, more intrusive state in its various guises. If our legislators are now learning what it feels like to have your privacy bulldozered — well, voters’ hearts may not exactly bleed.
Mr Green’s arrest, simply for performing his duty to probe, scrutinise and if necessary embarrass the government, is a genuine outrage. But Parliament must be wary about looking like an organisation in decline, worried chiefly about its own privileges. The way to address this problem is to look at it in the round and in a historical perspective. There is an urgent need to address the alarming decline in Westminster’s stature, and a burning need to restore its reputation. The root problem is one that started long before the Special Branch started laying Mr Green’s office bare.