Friday, October 24, 2008

Oh, what a jolly jape!

The House of Commons public administration committee, under the chairmanship of Dr Tony Wright, started yesterday an inquiry into "good government" – in, of all places, the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House.

This, according to the genial Wright, was an opportunity to stand back from the "daily grind" to take a "reflective view" about "how we do government". There were three main issues said Nick Raynsford, the first of four witnesses with "deep ministerial experience", the other three being Kenneth Clarke, David Blunkett and Peter Lilley. Those issues, said Raynsford were "administrative, political and cultural".

The transcript of the proceedings is not yet up on the Parliament site, but the video can be watched here and Andrew Gimson has a report in The Daily Telegraph.

Needless to say, Gimson goes for the lightweight tat, but not entirely so. He records an intervention from committee member, "new boy" Charles Walker MP, on the financial crisis (see 1 hour 28 mins onwards on the video).

Walker expressed dismay at the failure of MPs to seize the chance to speak on the financial crisis in last week's debate in the Banking Bill. That debate, we are now told, had collapsed for lack of speakers at nine in the evening, when in Mr Walker's opinion it should have gone on until 4.30 the next morning.

This led Walker to ask whether Parliament had risen to the challenge or had declined into a mere rubber stamp. "What is the point of Parliament now?" he asked. "Is it a purely a supine lapdog?"

Clarke, without turning a hair, acknowledged the point – but only partially. He admitted that the Commons "was certainly more powerful when he was first elected to it in 1970". "The Parliamentary process," he said, "is now infinitely weaker than it was". Now, why would that be, we wonder? Let me think, now, what happened after 1970 that could have made a difference? Gosh! That's a really, really hard one!

Not, of course that the smug, jovial europhile Clarke offered any explanation of why that might really be. Skirting around the subject with a welter of detail about his ministerial career, to the evident approval of the smiling Wright, the happy chappies still had time to share a jolly jest about ministerial reshuffles.

Clarke even managed to talk some sense, noting that the constant intervention of the government into wider and wider areas of our lives had led to an "infantalisation of the public, who are led to believe that any problem that they face is the fault of their political masters who are expected to sort it out in the next two or three weeks."

This we see every day of the week and the point was well made. But, entirely missing from the discussion or any of the evidence submitted were those two words – "European Union". Here, we have a whole committee discussing earnestly "how we do government" and nothing, absolutely nothing is said about our government(s) over there in Brussels, Basel and beyond.

The cri de coeur from Charles Walker thus goes unheeded, unanswered and ignored. The elephant in the room slumbers on undisturbed while our fatuous, preening, smug, over-paid MPs prattle on regardless and the noble representatives of the fourth estate happily twitters away in the lower reaches of his newspaper to the jolly entertainment of us all.

All of these happy chappies no doubt returned to their little pads that evening, content that they had done a jolly good day's work and that they were well worth the money they had been paid. But, if you listen carefully, you can hear the distant clatter of tumbrel wheels on the cobblestones.