One lesson the Conservatives really ought to have learned after more than a decade in office is never to give the Blob an opening. Yet that seems to be precisely what the Government has done with the Owen Paterson affair.
The fallout was already shaping up to be pretty toxic for Parliament. I have written previously both about how it poisoned the well for reform and raised the spectre of banning MPs from having outside incomes, which would reduce their independence.
But the most recent proposals by the parliamentary watchdog are by far the worst, for they amount to nothing less than an attempt to impose doctrine upon our elected representatives. As the Sun reports:
‘MPs face being gagged by new rules forcing them to be more woke in a fresh attempt to clean up Westminster sleaze. Parliament’s ethics watchdog wants to make politicians demonstrate anti-racism, inclusion and diversity at all times. MPs hurling excessive personal attacks or abuse on Twitter would breach the code.’
It is one thing to police MPs’ external incomes for conflicts of interest which could corrupt their work as a public representative. It is an entirely different matter to actually suborn their representative function to the mores of modern HR culture.
For starters, who would decide what ‘anti-racism, inclusion and diversity’ mean? The rapid evolution and indeed obsolescence of terms is a feature of progressive language.
Even if MPs shared a common understanding of them when such a rule was enacted (and they surely would not) they would surely take on a life of their own. Such mission creep is a feature of any workplace that has full-time diversity personnel who need to justify their ongoing employment.
‘Anti-racist’, for example, has already acquired a new – inevitably American – meaning that goes beyond merely not being racist to the pursuit of a pro-active programme set out by ‘woke’ thinkers.
But the move is noxious in principle. MPs are elected representatives, and their rights are therefore an extension of our democratic rights. It should go without saying that the public has the right to return people who Westminster who do not ‘demonstrate anti-racism, inclusion and diversity’, no matter what you, I, or the right-on folk at the watchdog might think about it.
Should we instead allow the creation of a sort of progressive Test Act, the UK will have taken a definite step towards becoming a form of what, were it being done in Putin’s Russia, we might call a ‘managed democracy’ – the hollowing out of Western democratic culture prophesied by Peter Mair in his essential book Ruling the Void. From being the driving force at the head of the state, Parliament would start to look more like a means by which the governing class could misdirect and earth popular sentiment.
It feels fitting that this story comes hot on the heels of Stella Creasy’s efforts to allow babies to be brought into the House of Commons chamber. There can be little doubt that the advocates of these proposed guidelines are entirely in favour of her initiative.
Taken together, the two highlight a troubling shift in views on what the proper role of Parliament is. We see a push for measures to brute-force it towards being more representative on a largely performative metric, such as the 50:50 Parliament initiative, whilst its irreplaceable role as the crucible of public opinion and forum for national debate is devalued and undermined.
Let’s be clear: a future Parliament whose makeup was perfectly in accordance with the ethnic and gender composition of the electorate, but whose members were screened and monitored on political grounds by the watchdog, would not just be less representative than the current one, but would be unfit for purpose.
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