Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Deposing the Speaker

Steve Richards in the Independent thinks that Michael Martin is being unfairly treated:


Suddenly here were noble, crusading MPs turning on the Speaker who appeared to be culpable for it all. Fleetingly, it was easy to forget that MPs, and not the Speaker, had claimed for moats, plasma TVs and the rest. It was an inadvertent deception. Most MPs know how loathed they are, but it was a deception nonetheless. It all felt too easy, the theatrical calls for him to go, the outraged indignation from some MPs afterwards as they rushed out to the nearby television cameras. The removal of the Speaker would address none of the more awkward fundamental issues that brought about the crisis.


Richards thinks that Martin is being set up as "a scapegoat, a symbolic scalp" whose removal will produce no lasting change. Hardly. This is Air Miles Martin we're talking about, a man perfectly happy to let the taxpayer pick up the tab for his wife's taxi fares, who more than once tried to stifle proper debate and inquiry into MPs allowances, and who paid lawyers from the public purse to put the frighteners on critical journalists. His departure has been a long time coming: he has been the most accident-prone, the most personally compromised, and the most divisive Speaker in living memory.

The function of a scapegoat is to displace guilt. An innocent victim is selected and, ritually or otherwise, loaded with the sins of the community and driven out or killed. The scapegoat is other - in the original case, a goat, in other historical examples a slave, a foreigner or a member of a despised community. Whole communities might be scapegoated. Often, in European history, it was the Jews, blamed for everything from the Black Death to the military success of the Mongols. Outbreaks of scapegoating typically occur at moments of crisis, when a form of panic sets in because normal solutions seem to have failed. There's certainly an atmosphere of crisis at Westminster, even of panic, but there's nothing illogical in the selection of the Speaker as fall guy. He was personally at fault for at least some of the culture of trouser-stuffing, he had failed to anticipate or answer the public mood, and he was no longer seen (if he ever had been) as an impartial and competent president of the House.

He went with as little grace as he could muster. He might have taken the opportunity to apologise to Kate Hoey, his treatment of whom last week precipitated this crisis. He might have shown some contrition, some awareness that confidence in him, in Parliament and outside it, had collapsed for a reason. Instead he simply announced that he was going. He made the strange claim that the House of Commons is at its best when it is "united", which is almost the opposite of the truth (the Iraqi parliament, after all, was very united in the days of Saddam Hussein, and they are still renowned for their displays of unity at the People's Congress in Beijing). But, ironically, he had in his final 24 hours managed to unite the House. Almost everyone was agreed that he had to go. The one redeeming feature of his farewell performance is that it didn't descend into a maudlin and hypocritical fawning session, with MPs of all parties coming together to salute Martin's great qualities with moisture in their eyes. But I'm sure something of the kind will be arranged.

Yesterday's scenes in the Commons were unprecedented; they broke every Parliamentary convention. It was almost a revolution. It can no longer be said that MPs are out of touch with what ordinary people are thinking. They know, all right; perhaps for the first time, a majority of MPs actually seem to get it. That's why they were able to overcome the strong taboos that hedge the person of the Speaker with a kind of divinity and tell him, to his face, to resign. That's also why we saw Gordon Brown today announce that errant Labour MPs will be deselected. He realises (as does David Cameron) that if the parties themselves don't get rid of MPs who have abused the system, the voters will. Both will be hoping that once a new, arms-length expenses regime is put in place the fuss will die down and the voters will go back to sleep. I fear they may be right. A pay package is easily fixed. A handful of greedy MPs are easily got rid of. There are much larger problems, but they are issues of principle, concerning the very architecture of democracy. The short termist, media-driven political process we now have is inimical to the serious, rather dry and highly complex debate that would be required to rebuild a failed system. So I'm predicting a few more weeks of gradually diminishing chaos, followed by a return to something like business of usual.

6 comments:

Wasp_Box said...

"There are much larger problems, but they are issues of principle, concerning the very architecture of democracy."

You are right (good post by the way) and I'm frightened that this will be the only chance we get to address them but we will be silenced by a cosmetic change. I have to go but might post more tomorrow.

Peitha said...

I'm not sure Brown does get it yet, given his most recent pronouncements on an independent body to oversee MPs expense claims.

If MPs lack the integrity to be trusted to self-regulate their own expense claims, they don't have the integrity to be MPs. I'll predict right now that no senior government figure, no matter how outrageous their expense claims, will be found to have 'defied' the rules. Because, let's face it, that's an extraordinarily high test to set.

Maybe a couple of backbenchers, maybe some retiring anyway, will be ritually deselected, but the whole endeavour seems designed to allow the same dishonest bunch to remain, rather than cleaning the place up by getting rid of dishonest MPs.

Martin said...

Speaker Martin is both personally culpable and a scapegoat. There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the speaker, which justify a resignation, however the inevitable publicity might be used as a kind of catharsis which will mitigate the general indignation.

Both Brown and Cameron are 'Johnny come lately's when it comes to Westminster transparency: whilst Brown will be amply castigated, the indications are that Cameron will, in Teflon Tony style, get an easy ride.

I suspect that 'reform' in the absence of Speaker Martin as the elephant in the room will be less far reaching than 'reform' in his absence (which is another reason why he had to go).

As to a new speaker, I cannot understand why the speaker must be an MP and an MP who is unopposed in his/her constituency. Surely this is undemocratic and deprives constituents of a voice. I recently saw a suggestion that Vince Cable could be made speaker: what a ridiculous idea! Perhaps the speaker should be the MP who most needs to be shut up.

Thinks ... if Brown were made speaker ... or Smith or Balls or ... Oh dear, there are too many to suggest

Peitha said...

@Martin; " I cannot understand why the speaker must be an MP"

Because only MPs can vote in divisions in the Commons and the Speaker casts the deciding vote if a vote is tied. Now do you understand?

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

But peitha, since we have no constitution we can simply change the rules so that the Speaker can vote even though he or she is not an MP. There is no bar on anything in the UK because there are no rules. Anything goes.

It might not be a bad idea for the Speaker to not be an elected MP but instead chosen by an electoral college.

Martin said...

I seem to recall that the way the speaker should vote in an eventuality that has not been seen since Callaghan is itself a matter of convention (i.e. for the gov), so it is quite irrelevant. Can anyone really imagine a situation where the vote of the speaker led to the fall of a government?

The conventions surrounding the speaker are outmoded: it is a bit like having a foot ball match in which one of the 22 is also the ref.

At the very least if an MP is chose as speaker he/she could relinquish his/her constituency.