Sunday, May 31, 2009

Viva La . . . British Revolution?

Is England on the verge of revolution?

To those who know this most peaceful of nations intimately, the question is bound to sound bizarre. Boasting attachment to the rule of law and democratic government, the English have not had a revolution since the 17th century.

Nevertheless, these days it is hard to be in the company of Englishmen without hearing talk of the need, indeed the imminence, of revolution.

Amir Taheri, Coming Soon, An English Revolution, May 29, 2009

[Art: Oliver Cromwell After The Battle of Marston Moor, by Ernest Crofts]

The British sat silently by for years as the Labour government deconstructed society. Englishmen have suffered an ever growing nanny state with nary a peep. When, last year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown reneged on a promise to hold a referendum about transferring British sovereignty to the EU, there were no mass demonstrations. I have long expected the British rank and file to one day say, enough is enough, but given their collective placidity, I had no idea when it would be or what it would take to light the fuse.

Well, the fuse has now been lit, it would seem. And the matches are the expense claims of the elected Members of Parliament (MP's). All across the UK, people are dusting off their copies of Oliver Cromwell's speech to the MP's dissolving the Long Parliament in 1653. That's the speech that begins:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice . . . "

The irony of it all is just amazing, since, by all rights, this is far more the story of a corrupted system than it is the story of an intrinsically corrupt political class.

Britain's MP's are well remunerated - but only partly by salary. A British pound is worth $1.62 today. Per capita GDP is about 20,000 pounds. According to Brits At Their Best:

MPs earn £63,000. They have allowed claims "on everything from staff costs of over £100,000 to the additional cost allowance of up to £24,006 and a so-called incidental-expenses provision of £22,190".

Dr. North, at EU Referendum, documents that the MP pay structure was changed in the 1970's in an effort to increase MP remuneration without raising the ire of the electorate. Parliament established an expense allowance scheme that ostensibly would allow MP's to claim reimbursement for costs relating to their duties. But it was never simply that. Indeed, few if any in Parliament, over a period of decades, treated this as anything other than a pay raise in disguise. MP's have routinely been told to submit any sort of reimbursement claims for rubber stamp approval. As Dr. North explains it:

That is the way the system was designed, and it has worked this way for over thirty years. This is exactly what Booker wrote yesterday: "MPs are told they can claim their 'allowances' as an automatic right, so long as they go through the charade of handing in largely meaningless invoices."

That may be the case, but as Britain suffers the severe effect of the current recession, rank and file Brits upon whom this deception was being played went ballistic when they were told about some of the expense claims. This from the WSJ:

A week or so ago, the Telegraph newspaper got its hands on some of the juiciest secrets in Britain -- the dubious expenses claimed over the last few years by British politicians. The scale of the cupidity is astonishing. The evidence suggests that members of all parties -- Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, even, most impressively, representatives of Sinn Fein, the Irish republican party whose members for years actually refused to take their seats because they didn't recognize Westminster's writ -- have been bilking the system for all they're worth.

The scandal threatens to be as corrosive as anything seen in Britain in decades -- this isn't just about a party abusing power; it threatens to undermine the public's remaining faith in the probity, not just of politicians, but of Parliament itself.

. . . Politicians have sought and received reimbursement for claims ranging from a bag of manure and light bulbs to home-cinema systems.

The perquisites claimed offer a colorful reminder of the resilience of the class system in Britain: from the Tory MP who claimed for the upkeep of the moat at his country house [my personal favorite], to the Labour man who charged for a couple of toilet seats.

Some have been caught "flipping" their designation of a second home, for which they receive an allowance, from one residence to another, each time collecting money for redecoration.

Communities Minister Hazel Blears submitted expenses for £5,000 ($7,588) of furniture for second homes over a three-month period and has now paid back £13,332 she claimed for a housing tax. Elliot Morley, a former environment minister, has been expelled from the Labour Party over allegations that he claimed expenses of more than £16,000 for interest payments on a mortgage he had paid off more than 18 months earlier. Andrew MacKay, a Conservative member of Parliament, resigned as political adviser to party leader David Cameron after it came out that he claimed a full "second-home allowance" on his London address -- while his wife, fellow Conservative MP Julie Kirkbride, claimed the full allowance for another home. . . .

This has all hit Britain like an atomic bomb going off in the middle of London. It has become a focal point for a host of issues with the current state of Britain. As Camilla Cavendish wrote in the Times:

. . . one of the reasons public anger goes a lot deeper than Sir Peter Viggers's duck pond is because we feel we can no longer change our laws by voting out politicians. The EU machine marches on, constraining everything from the future of the Post Office to what vitamins we can take. The promised referendum on the Lisbon treaty has been ditched. The quango nanny state has acquired a momentum of its own. Politicians have given away powers that they held in trust for the people. They cannot be altogether surprised if people now lump them all together in impotent fury.

You can see the same reflected in this post from An Englishman's Castle:

BBC NEWS Politics MP's fears of expenses 'suicide'...MPs were walking around "with terror in their eyes" and likened the atmosphere to that surrounding Senator Joseph McCarthy's "witch-hunts"...

Good, as they say only the guilty have anything to fear, but they are all complicit in creating a Britain where ordinary people are spied on, reported on, fined and criminalised for "innocent" mistakes. Every self-employed person lives every day in fear of the State "investigating" their business and personal circumstances. So it is excellent news that every single Member is now getting to feel just a little bit what it is like to be a subject..

As Mr. Taheri writes, revolution is in the air. The real question is to where it will lead. I do not doubt that, as Mr. Taheri writes, the next set of elections will bring about an entire class of new faces to British Parliament. But whether any of this will result in the type of structural changes from which the UK might benefit is another matter entirely. The British Parliamentary system is a sort of tyranny of the majority at the moment, with no real system of checks and balances - at least not since Blair finished tinkering with the House of Lords - no constitution,** and what appears today to be a monarchial rubber stamp. Some have talked about changing that. For discussions on the topic, see EU Referendum (here, here and here). You will find similarly intelligent discussions in some of the posts at Brits At Their Best (here).

Whether this current state of affairs may lead to substantive change, that is an open question. Reforms will clearly be aimed at cleaning up the system of remuneration for MP's. Beyond that, nothing will happen unless there arises someone who can actually capture the public's imagination with some specific plans. I am not hearing that anything like that yet in the mainstream British media. But, being a deeply committed anglophile, I will remain very hopeful.

** For those who maintain that Britain has a Constitution, but merely one that is in pieces - i.e., the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Rights of 1689, the Coronation Oath, etc., I concur. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution is not all that much more than a codification of those rights as they existed in 1776. I strongly believe that those documents should be collated and formally recognized as the British Constitution. But the reality is that Parliament has long claimed precedence over those documents. Thus do British citizens no longer have the right to "keep and bear arms," for example, even though such right is granted all Protestant citizens of the realm by the Declaration of Rights of 1689. See Justice Scalia's discussion of the 1689 Declaration of Rights here. Perhaps formally recognizing these documents as creating a Constitution might be a starting point those who want to see structural change arise out of the current civil discontent.

Update: Speak of the devil . . . today in the Times (UK):

We Need A New Constitution For Britain — And The Debate Has Begun

For the first time since the suffragettes, constitutional reform has become a popular issue. The crisis over MPs’ expenses has convinced many that Parliament has become insulated from the people. MPs must become accountable between general elections, not just once every five years.

MPs have also lost authority. If, far from being better, many are worse than the rest of us, their right to monopolise legislative power comes into question. Many people believe that they are at least as well qualified to take decisions as their MPs. That means more direct democracy — primaries, recall of MPs and referendums.

Gordon Brown has long been a constitutional reformer. He supported devolution long before it was fashionable and, in 1980, co-authored a book on the subject. He appreciated that reform must mean more than a shifting of the institutional furniture.

Yesterday he suggested that the agenda of constitutional reform should embrace reform of the electoral system, reform of the Lords, a Bill of Rights, votes at 16 and a written constitution . . . .


Dinah Lord said...

The picture isn't very pretty over there in the UK. And your post is pretty damn depressing too, GW.

On a more encouraging note, the polls show the Labour party falling to third place for the first time in 22 years.

I keep asking myself what is it going to take to bring the whole thing down like a house of cards.

And when I say the whole thing, I mean the whole magilla.

(Have you been watching what's going on with the long bond? It's making a lot of people jumpy, including me!)

KG said...

Nothing will change, GW. 'Opposition' politicians such as Cameron are making noises about reforming the system, but Cameron himself has been caught with his sticky paws in the till!
By now there should be numerous arrests and prosecutions pending but the police will do nothing. Meanwhile, those as guilty as hell aren't resigning--far from it. They've stated their intention is to stay on until the next elections, possibly a year way.
And the Brits will do nothing.They no longer have the spine necessary for real action.

Anonymous said...

We need a violent revolution to shake the country up, apathy is rife here - funny, just typing that and I'm looking over my virtual shoulder thinking I could be arrested under the Anti-Terrorism act.
County councils are surveilling the public using anti-terror laws to make sure they aren't letting their dogs foul the footpath, make sure they put the rubbish in the correct bins, etc.
I can't go from A>B without being monitored, indexed and stamped.
Immigration is out of control, the police are out of control, the politicians are out of control.

As a stout monarchist I have, for the first time ever, turned my back on them for doing nothing to reign the Government in.
Seems to me that as long as they get their pay cheques then they're happy for the public to swing.

I'd like to see the armed forces remove the government asap!

Voting for the far right British National Party is the only recourse if revolution is not viable.

billm99uk said...

The problem is if you just add a British Constitution to the existing mess it would have to be subordinate to the European Court of Human Rights and European Commission legislation, which defeats the whole point of the thing. You'd just have ANOTHER layer of legislation messing things up. Domestically, I'd try to do a slightly better job with the Lords and the expenses system, but otherwise leave well alone.

I quite liked the "tyranny of the majority" thing of the old system. If you didn't like what the government was doing, you kicked them out and elected another bunch of people. It avoids the "judicial activism" problem like you have on abortion in the US and all those daft arguments over what constitutes a "well regulated militia" in the twenty-first century. The problem is at the moment, none of the major parties are offering to seriously renegotiate our relationship with the EU and derogate from the convention (well, the Conservatives are offering the first part, but there are plenty of real doubts over how serious they are). That leaves us with the Greens (eco-loonies), UKIP (ordinary loonies), the BNP (racist loonies) and the others (munchkins, the lot of them). Even my 78 year old mother doesn't know who to vote for...

Anonymous said...

i am an indian, and i am keenly watching the struggles of the british to get out of the clutches of the vicious tentacles of the nanny state they themselves have created in the past sixty years. i dont think they will be successful. the tentacles are simply too many; if the EU's and the UN's are taken into account, then they are surely overwhelming. you'll need a determined churchill. and that is exactly what the nanny state has succeeded in: preventing free-thinking citizens from becoming free of the state's control. best of luck, children of, but there is not much to hope.

Anonymous said...

I actually quite like it here.