Changing Times: Did we ever have trust in our MPs?

As MPs attempt to restore their reputation following the expenses scandal, Chris Bowlby considers the historical context of political mistrust

The House of Commons in the 1730s, when parliament was far from representative

As MPs attend their party conferences this autumn and return to Westminster, much more is at stake than usual. Not only is a general election looming. They must also attempt to restore their reputation, having been battered by the expenses scandal into what sometimes seemed like a collective nervous breakdown among the political class.

And throughout that scandal, history hovered accusingly in the background. Some saw reverence for tradition as part of the problem, buttressing Westminster complacency and arrogant insularity.

Others, however, denounced what they saw as a betrayal of a much better past. Today’s MPs were portrayed as uniquely corrupt and politically weak. In the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ with its resonant architecture and brooding statuary, the ghosts of Cromwell, Gladstone or Churchill, backed by spectral ranks of spirited backbenchers, were seen as looking on darkly as their modern counterparts queued sheepishly at the Fees Office to repay dodgy expenses claims.

The first removal of a Speaker for three centuries enhanced this mood. "The need for change is simply unprecedented" declared the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. A commentator in The Guardian, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, linking the expenses saga to what he saw as the domination of MPs by the executive, wrote apocalyptically of "the decline and fall of parliament".

But for many historians, the sense of unprecedented crisis is not necessarily so strong. Professor Bill Speck has written extensively on the 18th-century period when Prime Minister Robert Walpole built up a system of patronage and close control of parliamentary business, dubbed the ‘Robinocracy’ by his opponents.

He points out that there were two main causes of distrust between voters and MPs. Perhaps most familiar to modern ears was "the alleged corruption of MPs by ministers, who were accused of buying support for the government through the appointment of members to offices of profit under the Crown. It was objected that they could not serve both their constituents and the executive."

A blanket ban was proposed on MPs being given such offices of profit. We could, suggests Professor Speck, "have ended up with something like the US system where no member of the administration can sit in Congress".

In the end lesser restrictions on so-called ‘placemen’ were applied, and the row over their supposed lack of independence continues to this day with talk of the ‘payroll’ vote being mobilised by governments.

A 'golden age'?

The second great 18th-century complaint was over the unrepresentative nature of many constituencies. In some cities, a single constituency could be made up of as many as 10,000 voters, whereas in some small boroughs they often consisted of only a handful. "The most glaring example of this anomaly", says Professor Speck, "was in 1734, when far more electors voted for the opposition candidates than for the government", yet Walpole still won a majority.

The pro-Walpole London Journal, he notes, dismissed objections by stating: "the people are sometimes right and sometimes wrong".

Parliamentary reform in the 19th century ended many such anomalies, and is supposed to have ushered in a ‘golden age’ of democracy, with Westminster full of vigorously independent MPs.

But the political historian Professor Hugh Berrington thinks that even if there was such an age it did not last long. And MPs were far less assiduous in attendance than now. The role of the whips in ensuring conformity reached 20th‑century levels well before the death of Victoria.

Another supposedly prime period for backbench dissent was the 1950s. But this, says Professor Berrington, "was the time when the control of the party whips was at its greatest". It is in fact in 2001 to 2005, he concludes, that we have the "zenith of recorded dissent", with major revolts such as voting against the Iraq war.

So the argument that MPs have abandoned their predecessors’ independence is driven, believes Hugh Berrington, by "nostalgia, regret for a vanished world", rather than historical fact. As for their personal probity, Bill Speck feels that among today’s MPs, "only a minority could be accused of real corruption.

Similarly in the 18th century, the number of those that were really corrupt was smaller than the perception". But perception matters in politics, including perception of history. And a sense of the past, as either burden or model, will be highly influential in deciding how far this crisis extends.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

This feature was first published in the September 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine

This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.

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