MPs Must Choose Money or Power; as Britain Is Battered by the Most Severe Political Upheaval in Decades, Prof David Byrne, Head of the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, Looks at What Went Wrong While Explaining How the System Can Be Fixed

Article excerpt

THE recent farrago of stupidity and greed in relation to MPs' claims for allowances is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The camel being a political system that came into existence in the United Kingdom just about 100 years ago and a straw because, whilst in no way trivial in itself, it is certainly not the most important crack in what is now a very broken system indeed.

To understand where we are we need to see how we got here. That begins with the breakdown of the post-war consensus with the election of the Thatcher government in 1979.

Thatcher changed the Tory party and she changed the character of governance in this country. The industrial base was abandoned to the winds of global change and replaced by an increasingly deregulated financial services sector. Local government was stripped of power and replaced by unelected quangos.

The welfare state was turned into a cash cow for private capital through the development of the private finance initiative.

The tax system was transformed from mildly progressive into regressive, with the most affluent excused taxes altogether.

Labour's internal difficulties of the 1980s - it is difficult to pick the winner for arrogance and self-interest between Wedgie Benn and the founders of the SDP, but as Dr Johnson said why dispute precedence between the flea and the louse - gave us 18 years of Tory misrule which laid all the foundations of our current mess. Labour's solution was to become Thatcherite Tory with a smiley face. All Labour's internal democracy went.

The simpering warmonger Blair with his sidekick / rival (flea and louse again, anybody) Brown, continued economic and fiscal Thatcherism including financial deregulation, the massive extension of PFI, the rich excused taxes, and the maintenance of an over-valued pound.

We now recognize that almost all the country's so-called economic growth since the 1980s has been based on increasing public and private debt. Eighteen years of Tory misrule has been followed by 12 years of New Labour misrule.

We are, as a country, bust.

What have we got in prospect to deal with this? Two mainstream political parties which together made the mess in the first place.

Some LibDems criticized some aspects of this but actually, on fundamentals of economic and fiscal policy, they generally went along so no gold stars for them either. And all this with a political system cobbled together over 200 years which hands an elected dictatorship to whichever political party can come up with the votes of less than a third of the electorate provided it gets them in the right marginal seats.

Thatcher bad, Blair worse because under him Parliament lost all its real functions in terms of control over the executive and challenge to it.

Since no issues of principle divide the main parties, we have no real debate, no proper scrutiny of legislation and politics reduced to the farce of PM's question time which could be replaced by the party leaders wrestling in mud with minimal loss to the democratic process.

We have the most servile set of legislators in relation to the executive of any democratic state. In fact, we have had to rely on the wholly undemocratic House of Lords for any check on what since 1997 has been the stupidest and most authoritarian government of our democratic history.

There are two explanations for MPs putting their snouts in the trough. One is the belief, which began with Thatcher but was continued by New Labour, that greed is good and that you could be, as Mandelson says, be wholly relaxed about being filthy rich. Mammon rules OK.

The other was that the useless clowns had virtually nothing to do but fill in their expenses claims or play at being second rate social workers for their constituents.

Of course most of them employ staff to do that for them and most of the task only exists because local government has lost so many powers that councillors count for nothing. …