Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

This is what Stubbs's Constitutional History of England says: 'That individual members should not be called to account for their behaviour in Parliament, or for words there spoken, by any authority external to the house in which the offence was given, seems to be the essential safeguard of freedom of debate.

It was the boon guaranteed by the king to the Speaker when he accepted him, under the general term, privilege.' This is still the case, but people don't understand it any more. They keep thinking that some external authority should control MPs. They do not realise that, if this happened, they would be taking away their own power, which resides in the men and women they have elected, and giving it to unelected people. You cannot have a free Parliament if you do that. But this truth, I fear, only makes the behaviour of the present Speaker, Michael Martin, even worse than the critics think. Since the Speaker is the guardian of parliamentary privilege (that is what he Speaks for), he should be unbelievably strict in insisting on its essence and repudiating its, ahem, frills -- exploiting your constituency office allowances, charging up your wife's taxis, or spreading your officially earned air miles round your warm extended family. If the Speaker won't, who else can? But of course Mr Martin won't, can't. It would be wrong for him to be voted out, since that would set a precedent for war within Parliament about who presides over it; but it would be a good thing if he slipped quietly away. His successor should be the one who tells MPs honestly how near they have come to self-ruin, and promises to reclaim their true rights -- to make proper laws without government guillotine, to scrutinise European legislation as fully as other laws, to choose the heads of committees without reference to whips, etc. Speaker Lenthall, faced with Charles I's demands for the five Members in 1642, famously told him, 'I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me.' He did not add, 'Nor fingers in the till.' The House must hurry up and be pleased to direct a fit person.

Mr Speaker Martin's failure is partly attributable to his original decision to refuse to wear the traditional wig and knee-breeches. The wig, in particular, gave the Speaker the semi-anonymity necessary to remind people that the role, not the person, matters. Perhaps Mr Martin hoped to be respected on his own merits -- always a fatal error.

This week, ten existing or former MI6 officers are giving evidence at the Diana inquest. The reason they have to do so is almost incredibly thin. Mohammed Fayed imagines that MI6 murdered the Princess of Wales in Paris and that the probable method was flashing lights into the eyes of her driver. According to Richard Tomlinson, the long-running renegade from the service, a plot was hatched by MI6 in the early 1990s to kill Slobodan Milosevic thus. Mr Fayed thinks this proves that he is right. On this basis, the ten officers have to come and explain, as Sir Richard Dearlove has already done, what actually happened: one officer proposed the assassination of a leading Serb (not Milosevic, in fact), possibly by such a method, and his proposal was rejected immediately, as all assassination ideas have been for many years. Possibly this waste of time and public money does not matter much, but the fact is that a secret service is being made to appear in court on a complete wild goose chase. …

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