When right-wing newspapers call for “revolution not reform” and leading Tory writers claim that the bond between rulers and ruled is “irreparably ruptured”, you can gauge the measure of the constitutional crisis now sweeping through the British state.
The Parliamentary system is in meltdown following the revelations about large-scale abuse of the Commons’ expenses system, whereby MPs of all the major parties claimed for just about everything, including mortgages already paid off. And not just backbench MPs either. The Cabinet has been at it too. Chancellor Alistair Darling is a serial tax evader who “flipped” the designation of his main residence four times in as many years to claim the maximum expenses.
This crisis is exericising the right wing, who perhaps sense the consequences better than the liberal media. Peter Oborne (whose book The Triumph of the Political Class foreshadowed what has been revealed) says: “This is hypocrisy of the most staggering order. The scandalous revelations over the past week about MPs' expenses have destroyed any concept of Britain having a virtuous governing class and have also irreparably ruptured the bond between rulers and ruled.” Fraser Nelson, writing in the Murdoch-owned News of the World, went further, declaring: “What started as a scandal is mutating into a constitutional crisis. And one that will have to end not just in reform, but in revolution.”
The scandal reveals not just a loss of confidence in the major parties but also, more significantly, in the parliamentary state itself in a way not seen before in modern British history. By and large, the majority have consented to the present system of government on the condition that it would a) act as a buffer between capitalists and citizens b) provide key services like housing, education, health and pensions c) protect liberties and human rights and d) protect the country from external threats.
That political bargain has broken down, a victim of corporate-driven globalisation which itself has now produced the prospect of the greatest economic and financial crash in history. Capitalism has been let rip in society, first under Thatcher and then courtesy of New Labour. The imposition of naked market forces has undermined not just areas like housing and pensions but also reinforced rampant individualism.
It’s easy to see the greed of MPs as a reflection of the atmosphere created in society at large. After all, why should they be excluded from making money by buying and selling homes just because they were MPs? Apart from siding with corporate and financial interests, the capitalist state under New Labour has destroyed many human rights and engaged in illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have actually increased the threat to the safety of ordinary people.
So the expenses scandal has brought to the surface frustrations that have been boiling up over decades. During the 1945 period, turnout at elections, for example, has plummeted from 83.9% in 1950 to 59.4% in 2001. It rose slightly in 2005, still leaving New Labour victorious with the votes of just one in four of the registered electorate.
Now it is reported that large numbers of the electorate plan to vote for smaller parties at the June 4 European elections in order to “punish” the major parties caught up in sleazegate. This includes the Greens as well as two far right parties, the BNP (which is cashing in on New Labour’s abandonment of low-paid white workers) and UKIP.
When a social or political institution fails, it’s time to move history on. This could be achieved, for example, through the calling of a People’s Convention for Democracy, charged with drawing up and then implementing a written democratic constitution. Delegates would be drawn from all ordinary sections of the community but exclude the rich and the powerful who are responsible for first the economic and now the political crisis. Instead of being cast as bystanders, we should seize the initiative before the right wing uses the expenses' scandal to close down the democratic process altogether.
The Convention’s aim should be the transfer of power not just from the corrupt political elites but also from the minority who have run the economy into the sands. In short, we need a revolutionary new system of government that goes beyond mere representation to forms of direct democracy in all areas of society, including the workplace. If Parliament is to have any future, it has to be in this context because it is certainly beyond reform.
AWTW communications editor