Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A bit of technocratic tinkering

"Three weeks in and it keeps getting worse," writes Richard Littlejohn, everyone's favourite "man-in-pub".

As the revelations continue to pour out, though, there is a sense not so much of boredom as numbness creeping in. And the Telegraph, having started it all is rather in the position of the sorcerer's apprentice – as someone recently observed - having started something it does not know how to stop.

Aside from the obvious casualties of the affair, however – with many more to come – the greater loss will be if the opportunity is lost to push for fundamental reform to a political system which has spawned the self-serving culture that infests not only the political classes but also public service as a whole. Ask not what you can do for Britain, is the current ethos. Ask what Britain (aka taxpayers) can do for us.

Already, though, we a seeing that opportunity draining into the sands, as the self-same political classes who have presided over the wreckage of our system, coming together with Elastoplast reforms which they hope will take the sting out of public anger, yet will avoid damaging the status quo.

Yesterday, we had the Elastoplast King and the fatuous proposals from Boris Johnson and today we have some more offerings from HRH Elastoplast. Amongst the delights on offer is a proposal to: "Open up the legislative process to outsiders by sending out text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube."

All this and more we get spelt out for us in an "exclusive" piece in The Guardian, with Elastoplast Dave doing grandiose big time. "We need a massive, radical redistribution of power," his headline gushes, as we are told that "public fury at the MPs' expenses scandal points to deep problems in the British political system."

"We mustn't let ourselves believe that a bit of technocratic tinkering here, a bit of constitutional consultation there, will do the trick," says Dave. "No, this crisis shows that big change is required. We do need a new politics. We do need sweeping reform. But we've got to get it right." Cue text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills.

Some of the offerings do sound attractive though. "I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy," says Dave.

"Daveyboy ...shadap ...you aint fooling anyone," responds one commentator, sporting a label "Pretendingtocare". "Yo Davey! I've got a bandwagon, wanna jump on it?" adds "Chickenonfire". "Maccusi" simply remarks: "Bullshit. Mr Cameron." The Elastoplast has a way to go.

When we hear very precise details about how "Daveyboy" plans on "achieving a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power" from the EU to Britain – complete with a timetable – then perhaps it will be time to listen. Otherwise, the point by "GCDay" has particular resonance: "Were there any specific measures or proposals in there? I only skimmed the article but couldn't detect anything like that... ". Cynicism rules in this fair land of ours.

Nevertheless, "Daveyboy" isn't the only politician in reform mode. In The Times, we have a contribution from Chris Mullin, former chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, a minister in three departments and an MP for 22 years.

What is uncanny to the point of being sinister is how closely Mullin's recipe for "reform" matches some of that of the Elastoplast King's. Probably more by osmosis than collusion though, the political classes are closing ranks, hatching what they hope will be a package convincing enough to fool enough people that there is to be real change.

Mullin also talks in grandiose terms about the need to "prise the tentacles of the executive from functions that are properly the business of Parliament," using exactly the words and expressing precisely the sentiments that need to be heard more widely.

But if the lion roars, it delivers forth a mouse. The whips, says Mullin, routinely interfere in the selection of select committee chairmen. The time has come, once and for all, he says, to wrest from the whips the power to interfere in the choice of select committee chairmen.

In future they should be chosen by ballot of all backbench MPs, he says. Once chosen, those chairmen should have the final, but not necessarily the only, say in which members sit on their committees.

Next, he says, we need to reduce the powers of patronage available to the Government. How can Parliament function effectively when a large and growing proportion of backbench members are in some way beholden to the Government that they are supposed to be holding to account?

There, we could be venturing into real reform, with a proposal for a proper separation of powers. But if Mullin diagnoses [part of] the problem correctly, he fights shy of going for the only real answer. Instead, weak as dishwater, he tells us that "the place to start is by cutting back on the ubiquitous parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs)". And then, he says, "there may also be a case for a modest reduction in the number of ministers and special envoys".

There is then another 200 words of extruded verbal material, but the message is already clear. Trimming round the edges is all that is on offer. Mullin is not going to be looking at the root causes of the many problems and deal with them.

In the style typical of politicians though, Mullin – having offered us a diet of gruel – dishes up some rich words for his own table. "Only when we have a Parliament that demonstrates itself capable of standing up to an over-mighty executive will the country start taking its politicians seriously again," he says.

Therein lies the truth, but this also illustrates with graphic clarity – far more so than by the allowances scandal – the utter corruption of our political classes. They talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, you will find them with their slippers on, feet up by their fires, watching their taxpayer-funded plasma TVs.

Pic: best I could do ... killer-bunny slippers.