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The people have duties, too

13 May 2009

Rows over the Gurkhas and MPs’ expenses highlight voters’ responsibilities, argues Jill Segger

“National treasure meets grey-faced functionary”: Joanna Lumley and Phil Woolas MP discuss the Gurkhas on Thursday of last week

“National treasure meets grey-faced functionary”: Joanna Lumley and Phil Woolas MP discuss the Gurkhas on Thursday of last week

The 19th-century radical John Bright must be the most misquoted man in British politics. “Mother of parliaments” is the phrase frequently used to describe Westminster. But Bright was speaking of England, not of the legislature, when he coined the term.

It is because we have such a long established parliamentary democracy in this country that we tend to take its continued health and stability for granted. This is unwise. The relation­ship between politicians and elec­torate is fragile. It demands probity, sensitivity, and vision on the part of the governors.

From the governed, it requires vigilance, realism, and a refusal to fall into lazy cynicism or unexamined outrage when all is not as we might wish. Most people, having experi­enced compromise and human falli­bility, have a sophisticated grasp of the relationship between the ideal and the possible, but frequently fail to draw on this knowledge when responding to the conduct of politics.

All governments eventually hit the buffers. And when their tenure has been long, disillusion and resentment bring them down. When the smell of death clings to an administration, there is no remedy. All the good that may have been done is discounted, and individual failings come to char­acterise the whole.

Gordon Brown’s administration has brought much — though by no means all — of this on itself, and nothing better illustrates how trust has broken down than its handling of the Gurkhas and the unfolding saga of MPs’ expenses.

All policy decisions involve the balancing of conflicting interests. In deciding whether to permit UK residence to Gurkha veterans, the Government had to consider im­migration policy, the possible setting of precedent, and the financial and social implications of change. What it so disastrously failed to put into the equation was the affection in which the British people hold the Gurkhas. Add the passionate involvement of Joanna Lumley, and politicians could appear only as mean-spirited bureau­­crats.

It was possible to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Home Office Minister Phil Woolas — grey-faced bureaucracy made flesh — when Ms Lumley waylaid him on live tele­vision last week. In any con­frontation between a government functionary and a national treasure, there can be only one winner. That Ms Lumley is right and the Government wrong does not alter the potentially dama­ging imbalance when media-driven populism comes into conflict with the workaday complexities of public administration.

Every newspaper has its priorities — of which circulation has primacy. When the Daily Mail placed a picture of Ms Lumley brandishing a Gurkha knife on its front page, it was not appealing to the higher cerebral func­tions of its male readers. In sug­gesting that she should become Prime Min­ister, the paper exploited legitimate public anger, and re­inforced the idea that politics, unlike any other trade, requires no specific skills.

The Freedom of Information Act strengthens democracy by opening the conduct of public affairs to public scrutiny. Politicians of all parties failed to read the signs of the times, and in attempting to exclude their expenses from the legislation, pre­pared the ground for the mistrust that is now distorting political discourse.

Claims for wide-screen TVs and barbecues grate on people struggling to survive. The self-serving inter­pretation and redefinition of what constitutes a second home may be legal, but it is disgraceful. Taxpayers are right to be angry. But it is also right to consider the culture in which these actions are taken.

We live in an increasingly greedy society. Lifestyle is perceived as an indicator of individual worth, and an ethos of working the system to get as much as you can is the norm. Many who are now loud in their outrage will have stretched the truth over tax at some time in their lives. Believing oneself hard done-by and seeking compensatory advantage is not a state of mind unique to MPs.

The actions of The Daily Telegraph have overstepped the line between the investigative journalism that underpins democracy and the pursuit of circulation-boosting sen­sa­tion. The database of MPs’ claims appears to have changed hands for a large sum. By releasing information in instalments, the Telegraph seems to be putting its own commercial interests before the public good.

Politicians have to understand that integrity requires more than sheltering behind rules. They must undertake a radical examination of their attitudes, and co-operate, in letter and in spirit, with any new in­dependent body set up to oversee their allowances.

Responsibility is also required from the electorate, which must not permit the exercise of discernment to be overwhelmed by a rush to judge­ment. Outrage unencumbered by analysis may provide an outlet for discontent, but it does not make for reasoned scrutiny.

It also does further harm to what has already been damaged. Repre­sent­a­tive democracy, despite its faults, acts as a mediator and an adjudicator for us all, and protects those who are without wealth or power. If it is to flourish, it needs in­formed engagement from as many of its citizens as possible.

The Labour MP Tony Wright, who chairs the Public Administration Select Committee, warns of an elec­torate “walking away” from the democratic process. We are in danger of sawing through the very branch on which we sit.

Ms Lumley has expressed respect for MPs and an under­standing of their workload and “the hoops they have to jump through”. She summed up the reciprocal re­sponsibilities of a democracy in words the mother of parliaments should take to heart: “Let’s not diss politicians. Let’s just see that they do it right.”

Jill Segger is a writer, a Quaker, and a member of the Labour Party.

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