Burning Down the House: Bereft of Ideas, the Party Leaders Are Ransacking the Storehouse of History. Yet, in Their Very Desperation, They Are Sowing the Seeds of Destruction of Our Political System

By Vallance, Ted | New Statesman (1996), June 8, 2009 | Go to article overview

Burning Down the House: Bereft of Ideas, the Party Leaders Are Ransacking the Storehouse of History. Yet, in Their Very Desperation, They Are Sowing the Seeds of Destruction of Our Political System


Vallance, Ted, New Statesman (1996)


The row over MPs' expenses has exposed a deep national sense of alienation from our politicians. But this is nothing new. Historically, our parliament has seldom served to represent the people and our MPs have rarely been in touch with the lives of ordinary folk. Westminster has been forced to become more responsive by aggressive, even violent, popular action. The main party leaders, more out of fear for their political survival than a principled commitment to reform, are once again having to listen to popular demands for change. The reforms advocated by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg--fixed-term parliaments, revived local democracy and greater transparency--in fact represent the resurrection of demands made hundreds of years ago by radical groups such as the Levellers and Chartists. Rather than breathing life into these ideas, our present politicians are actually trying to strip them of their revolutionary consequences. But, having promised "big change", however insincerely, the party leaders may have set in motion a juggernaut they are powerless to stop.

If the parliamentarians of today appear to be making a tenuous claim when they say they represent our interests, the assertion was practically insupportable in the long period before Britain became a mass democracy. For much of our history, it was patently obvious that parliament did not represent the people. In 1714, at the end of Queen Anne's reign--a period characterised by intense party conflict within parliament and heavily contested elections in the counties and boroughs--a mere 5.2 per cent of the adult male population could vote. Formal politics was the preserve of a tiny minority of the population, and Westminster was, in every sense, a gentleman's club. The Great Reform Act 1832 did nothing to alter this; the electorate created by the new law in fact represented a smaller proportion of the male population (4.7 per cent) than had had the right to vote over a century earlier.

Although the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 enfranchised large sections of the working class, the "mother of all parliaments", by the end of the Victorian era, was lagging behind even her own colonies in the political rights she accorded to female citizens. (Australian women received the vote 17 years before their British counterparts.) Even the eventual equalisation of suffrage in 1928 did not mean that parliament became truly representative. The initial electoral struggles of the Labour Party offer clear evidence of the difficulty of getting working-class MPs into parliament. Salaries for MPs--a long-standing radical demand--were only introduced in 1911. Prior to that, Labour members such as Keir Hardie lived on a meagre stipend provided by the party, in Hardie's case a mere [pounds sterling]150 a year. Few of the multi-home-owning, chandelier-loving MPs of today would put up with Hardie's humble digs, a bedsit with one solitary gas ring, on which he prepared his main forms of sustenance: black tea and drop scones.

Working-class representation improved dramatically in the wake of Labour's 1945 election landslide, but in recent decades the process has been reversed. The number of female and ethnic-minority MPs has certainly increased, but there has also been a very marked decline in the number of MPs from working-class backgrounds. Of the parliament produced by the 2005 election, a mere 6.2 per cent had previously been manual workers. In their place came rising numbers of professionals, especially barristers. From being a gentleman's club in the 18th and 19th centuries, 21st-century Westminster turned into a white-collar wonderland.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This middle-class-dominated parliament now represents a nation in which the median household income is roughly [pounds sterling] 25,000 a year, not that much more than Sir John Butterfill claimed in expenses to build his servants' quarters. Even those who have remained squeaky clean on expenses scarcely present the image of being in touch with the lives of everyday people. …

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Burning Down the House: Bereft of Ideas, the Party Leaders Are Ransacking the Storehouse of History. Yet, in Their Very Desperation, They Are Sowing the Seeds of Destruction of Our Political System
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