We have reached the fag-end of polar ideology, and it appears that Parliament is ready to kick the habit. We have turned instead, not into an era devoid of ideas, but devoid of big plans and big disappointments. With the eventual felling of this rotten Parliament should come consensual, liberal, piecemeal reform – from all parties and outside. MPs look concerned with good governance, and not before time.
The expenses scandal (please read on) has smashed open the monopoly of ideas and power held by MPs who happened to be in the governing party. Government is ready to hire people from outside, and new reforms mean that soon (and not soon enough), government peers will be accountable to the House of Commons. Ministers such as Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis will finally face the scrutiny of elected representatives.
I’ve been watching the proceedings of the Public Administration Select Committee closely over the last few weeks, and they’ve been analysing this issue themselves. Next week, their findings will be published, and it will be worth paying close attention to them. They’re working on making government more accountable to parliament and encouraging MPs to turn to scrutiny not governance as an alternative career path. Turning politics into a vocation of deliberative reform, not party political hectoring, can surely only be a good thing – but more on the report another time.
I was struck by something John Major said when he appeared before the committee two weeks ago. He noted that many important laws get pushed through Parliament without being properly assessed – which, as he put it, was “no way to run a whelk stall rather than one of the oldest parliaments in the world”. That’s not the bit that struck me though, this is: “there is a distinction, I think, between ideology and conviction – but I don’t think you need a government of ideologues”.
He would say that, wouldn’t he?¹ But there does appear to be a genuine desire from the major parties to reform Parliament and focus on honesty and transparency, rather than focusing on the big ideas that were forged in the first part of the twentieth century. Democracy works, poverty shouldn’t be ignored, free markets are good but shouldn’t be totally unchecked – that’s a consensus and it’s the tinkering implementation now that seems to be most important.
Ideology’s no longer the monopoly of parties but outsourced to think tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice or the IPPR, individual thinkers such as Phillip Blond², or from historical ideas that were previously buried (the Tobin tax springs to mind). We also have (sometimes slightly shady) pressure groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance pressing government without any links to traditional political groups. The internet has greatly increased the power of small groups to spread their ideas, and the resultant flowing debate can only be a good thing.
But this must be combined with an increase of power and legitimacy for those elected to represent us. Currently, MPs have troughed to new levels of disgust and mistrust from the public, this is obviously unhealthy. If we do see a newer, less centralised form of ideological discussion, we need our elected representatives to be trusted to adjudicate it. They provide a steam vent when debate becomes too heated – through committees and debate and consideration. They provide a counterweight to the otherwise greater power of better funded organisations who usually support big interests: tobacco companies have limited power because our representatives stood up to them and championed the other side.
In practice, it is extremely unlikely that any party will win a large majority as seen in 1997. This means that we don’t want to encourage MPs to be pedantic, or to cause gridlock. There is a balance to be reached – scrutiny, but with the ability for government to react with hard cash. If the next parliament looks like opinion polls are predicting, big plans will be limited, and attention will focus on existing budgets and fiscal responsibility.
Yet if those commitee chairmen responsible for the scrutiny are elected by their fellow MPs, this shouldn’t be that great a concern. MPs recognise the need to act, and those that have lost touch with the public are likely to be strimmed away by the coming election. It is likely that the consensual (and suitably concise) debates on the actions needed on foreign policy, the economy and more, will be provide better policy for us all. MPs are concerned more and more with good governance. Good.
¹ Andreas Whittam Smith noted in the Independent last week “in Mr Major’s case it was what was perceived as an absence of political ideas. Nigel Lawson, who had been Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer before Mr Major, said he ‘never detected any political beliefs in Major Beliefs were not important to him. Politics, not ideas, were his game’.”
² Yes, I know he’s getting a think tank now.