A few years ago, some maintenance guys did an audit of the fixtures and fittings of Westminster Abbey. Down in one of the basements, they looked at a door and thought: that door might need a lick of paint, it’s a pretty old door. Then they looked again and thought: that’s a really old door. So the Abbey had got a sliver of it materials-dated and found that it was indeed an old door — an original fixture in fact, installed when the abbey was built in the early 1000’s, before the Norman Conquest.
That’s the feeling of British politics today, as it lurches from crisis to crisis. The expenses row, which began by slating Labour candidates for counting spare rooms, garages, bird-feeders, etc as their first residence, in order to fully fund their main home, has now spread to the conservatives and Lib-Dems, expanded to take in everything they claim for and how the scandal was handled initially.
To this end, the spotlight has fallen on the Commons’ speaker Michael Martin, who has been called on to resign by members of all parties for his handling of the affair — specifically, his decision to fight through the courts the FOI requests by a young freelance journo, which started off the whole shebang in the first place.
This is scapegoating of the highest order — everyone who knew wanted Martin to fight the request tooth-and-nail — and Martin is refusing to wear it. However, a disastrous parliamentary performance where the speaker had to answer rather than adjudicate questions, demonstrated to all and sundry that he didn’t appreciate the seriousness of the political crisis and was — as Speakers often are — a rather forlorn figure clinging to the bauble of office.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Once again the precedents then take you back to the seventeenth century and the beginnings of the modern British parliamentary system — this would be the first speaker to go in this way since 1695. Short of another gunpowder plot it’s difficult to think of a louder wake-up call about real political change, than the degree with which the 1600s is being cited these days. The improvised nature of British political institutions has always been something that anglophiles have celebrated.
The downside is that it gives you plenty of places to hide. UK FOI laws are pathetic, partly because they are not — as are US FOI laws — under girded by implicit constitutional rights, which dictate that the bias of FOI release should lean towards disclosure not exception.
But Australia’s FOI laws are better than the UK’s and no rights accruing from our pathetic rail-gauge-centric constitution guarantee that. We got FOI because at some point there was a genuine bipartisan commitment to change the relationship between rulers and ruled.
That makes clear the deep wormy rot eating away at the timber of British politics and (New) Labour particularly. New Labour’s spin-based cynicism, its glorying in its own anti-democratic elitism, essentially fused with much deeper traditions of paternalism and hereditary authority in British politics.
The result has been uniquely toxic to any notion of politics. Journos say that vox-popping people in the UK on the issue is not a question of grabbing people for a few words, but fighting them off — everyone wants to have their say. Anti-corruption post political candidates, the British National Party and anyone else hanging out their shingle as ‘of the people’ are likely to be the beneficiaries in the June European elections.
For Labour, it is possible that this is the end. This may be the thing that kills not merely the Brown government stone dead, but the Labour party in toto. My thinking on this would be that Labour would get such a drubbing in the next election, and be so discredited, that its centre-rightist groups, staring at 15, 20 years of opposition, would negotiate a mass fusion with the Liberal Democrats to create a US style Democratic party equivalent — while a remnant faction of Labour Left would create a German-style Links/Left party, based around 30-40 remnant working class electorates, accepting permanent minority status.
Such a move, abolishing the Labour “brand”, would put a UK Democratic Party back in the running within two terms. There are an enormous amount of people who really don’t want to vote the pack of Etonian gits that run the Tories into power, but see no real alternative. British Labour — with its immense heritage, its iconography, and its deep set attitudes — would gain energy from its own abolition, the sheer A-bomb effect of doing it would be an instant transformation of the political landscape.
Yes, it is always unlikely that political parties dissolve. But when it does happen — the Republicans jumping out of the Whigs in the 1850s, Menzies dissolving the UAP and founding the Liberals in the 40s — then it almost immediately generates the advantage of surprise.