Monday, 18 May 2009

The Levellers & corrupt MP's

The MP’s expenses scandal takes a new turn as it focuses on the difficultly of removing the Speaker Of The House of Commons. It seems we now have something of a mini-constitutional crisis along with a general loss of confidence in parliament. In such circumstances I always find that the 17th Century is a good starting point for guidance.

Curiously despite being usually painted as a tyrant and villain, Oliver Cromwell has recently been rehabilitated in the media. Although the context has largely been forgotten, his words on forcibly dissolving the Rump Parliament have lately been much quoted; “You are no longer a parliament …you have sat too long for any good you have done lately … In the name of God - Go !”

By 1653 the moderates who dominated the Rump parliament were badly out of touch with the country as a whole and especially the radicalized New Model Army. Some of the members had even been there since before the civil war when Charles 1st had summoned the ‘Long Parliament’ in 1640. Since then the world had been turned upside down. Supporters of the Presbyterian party had been expelled in Pride’s Purge of 1648 as potential (and indeed actual) royalist sympathizers. The MP's left to form the Rump Parliament were largely those who had been willing to countenance the execution of the king and the establishment of a republic but were also being overtaken by the radicalised sections of the army and the lower classes . Significantly it was these people that Cromwell and the army leaders lent on for their power-base, although ultimately they would abandon them.

Interestingly what made the MPs of The Rump most unpopular was that fact that many of them had not taken an active taken part in the fighting but were now getting rich on the confiscated assets of royalists. Also a great many MP's were also lawyers and their self-interest propelled them to resist legal reforms that would have given common people access to the system. It was this general disaffection with the parliament that gave a popular basis for Cromwell’s forcible dissolution – the now famous dismissal of the mace of office as “a fool’s bauble” and the resonant spectacle of Colonel Harrison dragging the speaker from his chair.

But with regard to the present crisis of confidence in the parliamentary system – we would do better to draw inspiration not from Cromwell but from the Levellers:

Just two of the demands from their ‘Agreement Of The People’ – annual parliaments and the right to recall members for re-election – would go quite a long way to restoring credibility. Add on a thorough-going modernization of the legislature, including an end to late night sittings and the ridiculously long summer recess, along of course with MP’s being paid only the national average wage – and we might get something like a representative parliament.

Just a footnote to all this; I see that in yesterday’s Mail On Sunday it is reported that the queen is appalled at the greedy behavior of MPs. From someone who has lived all their lives at the public expense along with her extended family and hangers on, is exempt from most forms of taxation, and has immunity from public scrutiny or criminal prosecution, that’s pretty ironic.


David McQueen said...

Putting the MPs on an average wage is a generous concession. Minimum wage with no extra income allowed might wake a few of them up to a few realities. Then buying a block of run down flats in Hackney as MPs second home would focus minds whilst regenerating the inner city.

Anonymous said...

In an interview with Roy Hattersley in the Observer, outgoing Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin says working-class Glaswegians are ‘too good to wipe the boots of his critics.’ It is difficult to know, given Martin’s track record, whether he is getting his words muddled up again or genuinely has very low aspirations on behalf of the people he purports to represent.

The Glaswegian working class has produced many courageous and articulate leaders for the labour movement. If Martin is unhappy with the nickname ‘Gorbals Mick’ the right-wing press gave him, maybe he should compare notes with Tommy Sheridan, hounded first by Murdoch International and then, when they failed, by the state itself.

Iain Hamilton QC has asked, "Tommy Sheridan has been vindicated by a jury of his peers. A jury heard the evidence and awarded him damages. It is no part of the duty of our police to prove the jury wrong and a newspaper right. Edinburgh and Lothians Police are conducting a vendetta against justice itself. Who can curb these officers who are clearly out of control?"

Sheridan is of course a brilliant orator who, among other things, inspired the working class of Glasgow to refuse to pay the poll tax, a struggle which drew in millions to join a movement which led to the downfall of Thatcher.

Martin recalls the eighties for his part in ‘the battle against the hard left.’ Presumably he is referring to his battle with those very people who led the anti-poll tax movement that brought down Thatcher. In a sympathetic piece, Roy Hattersley, cannot cite a single achievement Martin contributed to the cause of the working class. And now his career has ended in ignominy, having tried and failed to defend the right of Tory MP’s to claim their moat cleaning expenses on the tax payer, and, who knows, their boot cleaning expenses too.

If Sheridan goes to prison for perjury, at least he will be able to spend his time reflecting on real achievements on behalf of the labour movement. Michael Martin, on the other hand, is not fit to clean his boots.