29 January 2019

Ten years on, what can the expenses scandal teach MPs about Brexit?


Ten years ago this month, the MPs expense scandal was starting to unfold.

In January 2009, a group of MPs failed in their efforts to avoid having to reveal how they had been claiming public money. Commons authorities then had no choice but to start scanning details of those claims. Which, of course, promptly leaked. Public fury followed.

A newly elected MP at the time, what struck me was how indiscriminate that public anger was. One MP happened to have clumsily included a receipt with details of, as I recall, dog food. As I remember, there was no suggestion that they had even attempted to claim for it. Yet they were vilified almost as much as those MPs who had set out to defraud the taxpayer by claiming for non-existent mortgages.

Such blanket anger implied that people were not just angry over any individual claims – outrageous though some were. Their rage came from a sense that the scandal confirmed something they had long suspected; there was something parasitic about our political system. MPs, it seemed, had been rigging the rules to suit themselves. Those the public elected appeared to answer to each other, not the electorate.

Ten years on, tragically, much of that analysis still stands.

To be sure, in the wake of the expenses scandal, the system was cleaned up. Some of the more egregious uses of public money were no longer allowed. Quite rightly, the public can now see what their representatives do with public money.

But has much been done to deal with the root causes of the malaise that rots away at the legitimacy of our political system?

Back in January 2009, a group of MPs tried to play parliamentary games to try to exempt themselves from the implications of a law that they themselves had passed, the Freedom of Information Act. Today, a group of MPs are attempting something similar.

Having sanctioned a referendum, with 544 MPs voting in favour, with only 53 against, a group of MPs now seek to set aside the referendum result because they don’t approve of it. 494 MPs voted to trigger Article 50, with only 122 against. Indeed, almost every MP in Parliament was elected in 2017 on a promise to implement the referendum result. Now many are deliberately seeking to stall the whole process.

These MPs intent on blocking Brexit are no better than those MPs who in the wake of the expense scandal deliberately manoeuvred to blunt any chance of meaningful reform.

When the expenses scandal was at its height, party leaders promised to make politicians more directly accountable. Ordinary voters, they told us, would have a right to recall MPs. Yet what actually happened after the 2015 election?

Ministers and MPs colluded to create a system of recall that did not actually include a recall ballot at all. They decided to leave it to a committee of grandees in Westminster to trigger the process that would lead to a by-election.

Parties initially experimented with open primary candidate selection, in order to allow every local resident a say over who got to be the party candidate. Once anger over the expenses scandal abated, the system was quietly dropped. It was once again left to party committees in London to decide who got to be on the party A list again.

Brexit-blocking MPs might manage to delay our departure from the EU for five months, or even five years. But they will no more prevent it from coming to pass than MPs in 2009 managed to keep concealed their use of public money. Something has been woken that they cannot put back to bed.

What they may well manage to do is ensure that Brexit ceases to simply be a question of home rule, and becomes an issue of how we are ruled at home.

Already the anti-democratic behaviour of peers in the House of Lords has done more to popularise the idea that it should be abolished than anything the late Tony Benn ever managed. If Corbyn goes into next election pledging to do away with their lordships, I suspect much of middle England will cheer.

For as long as anyone can remember, you had to be a bit of a radical to entertain the idea of disestablishing the Church of England. Bishops could sleep easy in their palaces not because middle England was pious so much as indifferent. Will such indifference survive the Archbishop of Canterbury’s repeated anti-Brexit interventions?

Judicial appointments in Britain have, thankfully, never been the sort of divisive issue that they have often been in the United States. How many injudicious speeches by those sitting in our supreme court might it take to change that?

Britain’s political genius, it was once said, lay in our ability to adapt. Our system was one of evolution rather than revolution. In Britain, we avoided having the sort of scenes ugly that appear intermittently in Paris, where those sans culottes or gilets jaunes rage against an arrogant elite.

I fear that the Brexit blockers risk importing the worst of European politics into our system in a way that not even they would want.

Douglas Carswell is a former MP. He was a member of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.