Martin Bell: Politicians have picked our pockets, but now we can rebuild democracy

EXCEPTIONAL times call for exceptional measures to be taken by our political leaders with the earned trust of the people.

I believe that internationally we are living in the most dangerous times since 1945.

I don't get this from the press, which has significantly retreated from the real world into one whose values are those of the Big Brother house.

Our children and grandchildren face challenges which we did not. Conditions at home are hardly more settled and certain. We have lost faith in our bankers almost as much as in our politicians. Both have been seen to bail themselves out at our expense: and both will enjoy the most generous pensions with which to gild their retirements.

We have been paying our taxes for fraudsters, as well as honest retirees, to live in comfort for the rest of their days. The generations are also disconnected. The older one worries about material conditions, declining investments, quantitative easing and all the rest of the fallout from the recession.

The younger one is concerned about global warming and its future, if it has one, on an inhabitable planet. The art of political communication fails us even, and perhaps especially, in an age of spin. We need a George Orwell and don't have one.

Such is our predicament. It cannot be addressed by politicians who have lost our trust because they have picked our pockets.

Some of their peculations may seem trivial: a swimming pool boiler, a barbecue, a garden shed, a gazebo, a dozen wine glasses, a patio heater, a mole trap, a love seat – all claimed at public expense and, all added up together, costing much less than the bail out of a bank. Some of their more modest claims may actually have been justified; it does cost money to fix the central heating or repair the roof of a second home. But the scale swiftly shades into the large scale. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois famously observed: "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money."

And it is the perception – no, not just the perception but the reality – that the system is corrupt, or open to corruption, and that so many of the MPs working within it have been corrupt. Half of the Parliamentary Conservative Party either volunteered or were required to pay back money that they should not have claimed in the first place, to a total of at least 125,000 (plus what they had already returned to the Fees Office). All three leaders of the main parties were among the refunders.

We used to believe, in more settled times, that while many MPs may be hard to admire, our own was hardworking and honest. And some still are. But the abuse has been sustained and systematic. And our own MP, as likely as not, has been part of it.

The expenses scandal had the force of a tidal wave. The closest analogy I could think of was the fishing harbour in the town of Galle in southern Sri Lanka on Boxing Day 2004. When the tsunami struck, it had the effect of sucking water out of the harbour before it came surging back.

When a natural disaster strikes anywhere in the world, the aid agencies and national governments have learned from experience not just to rebuild things as they were.

Things as they were, vulnerable structures put up in the wrong places, were actually part of the problem. The new theory goes beyond restoring the status quo. It is called Building Back Better – which is now our political challenge. The expenses tsunami was not a natural but a man-made disaster. It did not have to happen.

It was a conspicuous act of parliamentary self-harm. The opportunity that this leaves us is once in a lifetime. If it had been less calamitous – perhaps, if the redactions had succeeded in blurring the reality – we would not have this chance.

But we do have it. We are in this together, responding as a people against the corruption of a failed political class.We have a chance to revive our democracy, to erect new structures in place of the old, and to populate them with MPs who are in politics for what they can put into it rather than for what they can get out of it. There are such MPs even now in the House of Commons.

The truly Honourable Members belong to all parties. They are like a tattered, ragged regiment which has been on the defensive for far too long, is low on morale and ammunition, and needs reinforce-ments to hold the line before advancing.

If our democracy still has life in it, those reinforcements will arrive after the next election with the massive intake of new MPs, who will have learned from the past without being tainted by it.

This will be the river flowing through Parliament to cleanse it.

Our politics, too, will not be the same again. A presumption of honesty will not be theirs to enjoy or ours to take for granted. Some may believe that the expenses scandal was just a passing storm. I think that this is unlikely for a number of reasons.

The first is that the shock felt by the MPs themselves has been so intense, that out of sheer self-respect they will never again allow themselves to be in a position to be so comprehensively reviled.

The second is that with the massive influx of new Members in the next Parliament, it will have a different look about it.

The third is that the rules on expenses and allowances will be clearly set out.

And the fourth is that, if the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is to mean anything, the rules will be rigorously enforced and offenders made to pay the penalty, from fines and suspension all the way to expulsion from the House. Somewhere within the fine print of the new legislation there has to lie a shadow of the gallows.

It is work in progress, make-or-break time, now or never, urgently requiring shoulders to the wheel of reform and retribution. And it has taught us two lessons about our MPs that we shall not lightly forget.

The first is that it is not their Parliament: it is our Parliament. And the second is that politics are too important to be left to the politicians. They are not to be trusted with it.

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n Martin Bell is also speaking at a Yorkshire Post literary lunch on December 10 at The Majestic Hotel, Harrogate. For details, contact Margaret Brown on 07731 690163 or email