David Selbourne

This political swine flu is about more than receipts

The philosopher David Selbourne says that the present parliamentary crisis is only one symptom of a larger corruption of public and civic institutions

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On 6 December 1648, Captain Thomas Pride, an officer in Cromwell’s army, stood at the door of the House of Commons chamber. He and his colleagues on that day prevented 140 MPs from taking their seats and arrested over 40 of them. The door was then locked, and the key — together with the Mace — was carried away by a Colonel Otley. Today, Britain is in the midst of another lacerating, and self-lacerating, parliamentary crisis which has long to go before its course is run. Political swine flu has not only doomed the Labour government, but damaged parliament — the ‘origin of all just power’ — and the country’s self-esteem.

The range of those who succumbed to parliament’s ruinous ethical disorders has been staggeringly wide. Cabinet and shadow cabinet, political war horses and newcomers, men and women, left and right, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jew are all involved. Tory toffs and Labour toughs caught this flu together; not surprising when their snouts were so close, and they were feeding from the same trough on the trampled pigsty ‘centre ground’, or Animal Farm, of British politics.

Comment has not got the full measure of this: a betrayal of parliament and the citizen-body by parliamentarians themselves, led by their Speaker. The torrent of publicity given to MPs’ wretched expense claims for TV sets and scotch eggs has itself got in the way of true judgment. Installing a home cinema, removing a wasps’ nest, spending a night in a spa — all at public cost — are relative trivia. Even the concentration upon MPs’ publicly funded profiteering, their false mortgage claims, tax evasions and ‘flippings’ of second-home allowances has been too narrow.

Instead, it is the moral disablement of parliament which is the greatest harm it has suffered. Both individually and collectively, its members have been rendered unfit (in the eyes of most of the public) to pass judgment on others, to make the law, to represent the interests of their electors and thus to fulfil their political functions. Is a second-home allowance fiddler, or a serial tax-dodger, an acceptable minister of the crown? Can the holder of three or four ‘outside jobs’ devote himself to the public weal?

And when a tainted Speaker can be praised for the ‘dignity’ with which he has presided over the corruption of parliament, and be elevated upon his ouster to an already degraded House of Lords — only to be succeeded by a new Speaker himself accused of ‘flipping’ — it can be no surprise if the ghost of Captain Pride should be stirring once more.

But the corruption of parliament is only part of a larger corruption of Britain’s public and civic institutions, whose ethos was once a notable aspect of the national culture. This ethos has been devalued, throughout British society, by the marketisation — or moral free-for-all — let loose in recent years upon the ‘public sector’ and its servants, of whom MPs are in theory the exemplars.

The greed of parliamentarians is merely one manifestation of the subordination of civic virtues to the privatised pursuit of self-interest, where having is more important than doing. Moreover, political parties in a marketised society cannot be run in the interests of the public. They are run in the interests of their own apparatchiks, MPs among them, and of their various clients and donors. The banker’s unwarranted bonus and inflated pension, and the parliamentarian’s indulgences and thefts from the public purse, are indistinguishable. They are all the market rewards of place, claimed without regard to consequence for others.

This is plainly a cross-party matter, as we have seen. Indeed, there is little to choose, morally, between the mainstream parties, even if the Tories have gained (disproportionately) from Labour’s failures and defects. Poorly led, increasingly memberless, and dependent on benefactions and bribes, none has been able to establish in the public mind what its fundamental aims are, apart from the gaining of office.

Again, comment has not got the measure of this. Part of the reason is the usurpation of debate in the mass media by many who are unfitted, from inexperience or unwisdom, to measure the true scale of what has gone wrong. This media failure is part of the political crisis itself. There are exceptions: Private Eye, for instance, deserves praise for its untiring coverage of the debasement of British public institutions, and for its accounts of the damage wrought, among other vast swindles, by the ‘private finance initiative’; PFI frauds dwarf the millions taken from the public purse by MPs.

And now, apart from re-learning Rousseau’s elementary lesson that the pursuit of self-interest is not enough to establish a common good, what is to be done? And who will lead the way? Here, we again face the dire problem of the waning of moral authority in so many once-respected British centres of influence and power. Quite apart from the loss of such authority by parliament, it has also been largely lost by the Established Church, the judiciary, the BBC, the suborned civil service and even by the monarchy; and, as it happens, by international institutions too, from the UN downwards. Moreover, there is no movement, moral or political, and whether of left or right, which is strong enough to purge the British body politic of its foulness.

It is for this reason that Britain’s parliamentary crisis is so troubling. Above all, it has seemed to confirm that, in a consumer society, notions of service and obligation have lost their traditional status. Indeed, so far had this gone among the representatives of the people that their mere whims and wants — for a ‘Manchu cabinet’ or a porn video at taxpayers’ expense — had come to be regarded as entitlements; as if there were an implied right, sanctioned by custom and practice, to steal and cheat.

When my book The Principle of Duty was first published in 1994, and knowing little of what was later to be revealed, I discussed its arguments at some length with members of parliament — including Jack Straw, Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith, Bill Cash, and David Willetts — in the hope that it might have some influence on public and party policy. The hope was naive: doctrines of rights, coupled with a belief in the moral autonomy of the individual, possess an easy primacy in our political culture over concepts of duty. In addition, there remains greater fear of a (phantom) ‘police state’, and of the ‘violation’ of our near-limitless liberties, than of the consequences of neglecting citizen values and duties.

Today, there is a void beneath our feet. In September 1654, Cromwell ringingly declared that the breaking of obligation was a ‘sad token of the last times’. These are not the last times. But the outbreak of political swine flu has been toxic, and will remain so until a true cure is found. A widespread loss of public regard for the parliamentary system cannot be afforded.

Nevertheless, the exposure of Commons corruption has been salutary, despite the contempt and anger it has aroused. For the disclosures have reminded us that there are more important badges of belonging than that of party, and that a democratic civil society must be protected from abuse of its freedoms, whether the abuses are committed by members of parliament or by others.

Resignations — or ‘stepping down’ while the going is good — deselections and prosecutions for fraud are therefore not merely to be welcomed but are essential; certain MPs, in particular, deserve to pay for having damaged the reputation of the Commons. But parliament, foolishly about to take a ten-week ‘ summer break’ after having rushed to shut the stable door, is only one public institution among others which has been brought low; and a new Captain Pride is now being secretly prayed for by many. One day, those prayers may be answered.

David Selbourne’s The Principle of Duty is to be republished by Faber and Faber in October.