The Corner

A Democracy in Trouble?

The scandal over parliamentary expenses in the U.K. has now forced the resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons, the first time this has happened in three centuries. The underlying scandal (check any British paper for details) is both less than some of the hoopla might suggest (the numbers involved are, for the most part, smallish, and most of the spending was technically within the laxly drawn rules) and much more — the intense popular reaction may hint at a very deep discontent indeed with the state of the country’s politics and political institutions, something that is reflected in this Daily Telegraph editorial, and is, thanks to the cumulative corrosive effect of Blair, Brown, and Brussels, thoroughly deserved:

The resignation of Michael Martin as Speaker marks the latest stage of a very British revolution. While his departure has been precipitated by his fumbling and inadequate response to this newspaper’s disclosures about MPs’ expenses, it reflects a collapse of public faith in the political system that has been evident for some time. Over the past 12 years we have seen a Government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority turn the Commons into a cipher for often perverse decisions. It has burdened the Commons and the country with pointless and even dangerous legislation. People feel their political representatives are aloof and arrogant. Now, in addition, they think they are venal, too. In a characteristically British way, we have all put up with this for far too long – there have been no marches, no riots, no clashes with the police. The public has now decided it is time for change: its fury has forced apologies, repayments, suspensions and resignations; constituency parties are threatening deselections; MPs are voluntarily deciding to stand down; the Speaker has been forced out, for the first time in 300 years…

Not only was Mr Martin the wrong choice; he turned out to be a catastrophic one as well. His fate is symbolic of the rottenness of a political system that was once the envy of the world. That system now lies broken and demoralised. With its sovereignty already dissipated by the power of the European Union, the role of the House in scrutinising legislation has been further undermined by the placing of time limits on all debates; the hours it sits have shrunk, the chamber is often virtually empty, and MPs routinely fail to articulate the concerns and aspirations of the people who elect them. Westminster has sunk into a slough of despond. The dwindling turnout at successive elections is testament to what the country thinks of the system. Mr Martin, as Speaker, has presided over this sorry shambles.

Quite what all this means for the way that those Britons who do vote in the upcoming elections will cast their ballots is anyone’s guess. It is not, I suspect, bad news for the loopy Greens, the nasty BNP (a party with rather too much of the brown shirt about it) or the chaotic, flawed, but not bad-hearted, euroskeptics of the right-of-center UKIP.

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