What's Wrong with MPs

By Weatherill, Bernard | The Spectator, November 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

What's Wrong with MPs


Weatherill, Bernard, The Spectator


A STEADY rumour spreading through the months has been that MPs who opposed the-government line on devolution in Scotland and Wales were in danger of being knocked on the head - deselected locally after a nod from the top. Llew Smith and Tam Dalyell had dissented from the leadership of party and government, and are thus alleged under a clause in the disciplinary code to have brought the game into disrepute. They were naturally liable to exclusion from a parliamentary arena which they have troubled with argument.

Llew Smith is a good old left-wing troublemaker; he argues back. Tam Dalyell is a heroic performer, whose name will be in the history books when 90 per cent of Cabinet ministers are footnotes. But we have a cult of assent. What was the slogan in Orwell's Animal Farm about the boss of the animals? - `Comrade Napoleon is always right.'

Remember Dunning's motion, that `the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished'? Today, party heavies (Labour or Tory), spitting on their hatchets and quoting the disciplinary code, are the Crown; threatening independent backbenchers with annihilation is influence all right. As for the last part of Dunning's motion, `ought to be diminished', it is the most forlorn of aspirations. Today that influence stands before us, subtly and not so subtly enlarged into a potential monster, and the Crown or the party leadership (much the same thing) has such overmighty influence because Parliament has dwindled, is dwindling and ought to assert itself. Parliament, in the presence of the executive, has become a matching accessory. The commonest matching accessory is a handbag of uncertain fabric, and Parliament today is made of real imitation politics. It is not just subordinate to party, it is distracted and wilfully diverted from the true parliamentary function of calling the executive to account.

I say it has dwindled, but not in size. The legislature has declined in influence as it has swelled in numbers. There are too many MPs, for whom things must be found to do, things to keep them out of mischief, out of the way of arguing with the government. Douglas Hogg has told us that there is no real point in being an MP except as the necessary interim before one becomes a minister. I forbear to ask whether in Mr Hogg's case it was worth waiting. But he does describe Parliament as it has become: part waiting-room, part occupational therapy.

The chief consequence of a too large House of Commons is that the chamber is empty. The people who should be making trouble and cheeking the leadership are in their offices in the Norman Shaw building or the nicer Parliament Street accommodation, busy with constituency letters and problems. Put out of your minds, by the way, the common fallacy of so many stroppy voters that MPs are idle. That is as great a delusion as the notion of legislative life as a round of alcohol and adultery. Just as champagne and crumpet usually turn out to be tea and toast, so your supposed idle MP is a letter-dictating, council office-telephoning subordinate who is wearily employed from about eight in the morning. Do you recall the film The Apartment, where regimental rows of employees are drawn up before calculating machines, all dreaming of elevation to the 27th floor? Give or take a cubicle wall, MPs increasingly resemble them. And the allure of the parliamentary 27th floor -promotion to minor office - is another reason why the influence of the Crown has increased and is increasing.

These MPs are busy because the Commons has been converted over the last 30 years into a great humming citizens' advice bureau. I have checked some numbers here. In 1964, when I arrived, there were about 7,000 letters coming in and out every week. Last year, 40,000 letters came in and 30,000 went out per day! The reason why the Commons is empty today and there are no Dunnings or John Brights or Laboucheres or Keir Hardies, Nigel Birches or John Biffens, and why soon we may not have a Tam Dalyell, is that in 600 cubicles, 600 earnest, hardworking, but perhaps not very criticalminded MPs run round their wheels. …

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