Tuesday, 9 December 2008

In Defence of the Speaker

Lot of furore in Westminster just now about the Speaker's actions during the whole Damian Green affair. It has certainly been a mess from start to finish, with the actions of the Met blundering (to put it mildly) and the lack of warrant for the search of Mr Green's offices at Parliament regrettable in hindsight.

However, the voices clamouring for Mr Martin's resignation as Speaker are political opportunists in the whole rather than dedicated to the defence of democracy. As Frank Dobson pointed out in the debate over the issue in Parliament, Parliamentary Privilege is a concept that MPs refer to a lot, but one without a clear and agreed definition.

I think that most people would agree that an MP handles extremely sensitive material on behalf of their constituents and that it is important that this is kept confidential. However, no member of society, including our elected representatives, should be above the law. This means that the idea that there can be somewhere that an MP can store information with no recourse for it to be investigated in the course of police action in itself presents a potential threat to democracy. A warrant should have been issued and it is important that the procedures are clarified to ensure that it cannot be used as a "tool for oppression" as the Opposition are rather crudely alleging - Sir Nicholas Winterton's comparison with Zimbabwe is quite frankly an childish insult to both the people of Zimbabwe and the Government of the UK.

The situation has been a godsend for the Conservative Party - it came at such an opportune moment that you would almost suspect that they had masterminded it! Cameron has been struggling in the polls, the Government are bouncing back - and then along comes a situation where the Government is powerless to intervene. It would have been a bigger threat to democracy had the Home Secretary stepped in and criticised an ongoing police investigation - the police must remain impartial and independent to carry out their vital role. Therefore the Government has had to sit back and put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune - such is the limits of governmental power sometimes.

So it has been a postive news breaker for Cameron, although I don't think it has quite hit a nerve with the public in the way that he might have hoped - the economy is still dominating the headlines with the Green affair more of an issue for the commentariat. However, we should not forget that there are very important issues underlying the investigation. No one would deny that leaks have an important role to play in the democratic accountability of the Government (of whichever political shade it may be) and Labour certainly benefited from them when in Opposition. However, the leaks at the Home Office have taken on a systematic nature, which potentially compromises the trust between the Government and the 'impartial' Civil Service and also has implications considering the nature of the information that the Home Office deals with.

I think that it is the first of these two points that is the most crucial, although the second may have informed the decision to involve the police. Regardless of the party in power, it is a fundamental tenet of our democratic system that the Civil Service remain impartial and at the service of whoever in in government. The choice of the police to use the term 'grooming' in regards to Mr Green's actions (which of course remain only allegations) implies a ongoing source of information and therefore an ongoing breach of trust in the Home Office. It does not appear to have been a civil servant passing on a single piece of information which they believed to be in the public interest; rather this appears to have been the ongoing passing of various information to a member of a rival political party who are not the democratically elected government - this is a serious breach.

However, the Conservatives have cleverly turned this round to focus on the Speaker's office rather than their own member's potential wrongdoing. The Conservatives have had it in for Mr Martin ever since he was elevated to the post, believing that this broke the convention of alternating the Speakership between parties. Of course, this convention only dates back to the 60s, and the Conservatives had previously in 1951 carried out a very similar process in putting a Conservative in the position. The Speakership is of course impartial, and importantly so, but we would be kidding ourselves to pretend that it is not surrounded by party politics. There have been systematic attacks on Mr Martin since his election to the role, and it is undeniable that some of these have been personal in nature - the use of the nickname 'Gorbals Mick' demonstrating an outdated snobbery on the behalf of its instigators, alongside an obvious lack of geographic and historical knowledge of Glasgow.

The whole Green affair has demonstrated a need to review and define Parliamentary Privilege and to clarify the responsibility of the Speaker in protecting the integrity of the House. However, it has been primarily a party political affair, cleverly utilised by the Conservative Party. It is disappointing that the Liberal Democrats have fallen into line behind the Conservatives, but I think that this is an indication of what we can expect under the leadership of Nick Clegg - a hung Parliament will likely see them likewise fall behind the Conservatives.

But the affair does not constitute the basis for the resignation of the Speaker. In hindsight there are issues related to it which need to be changed, but the arrest and searching of Mr Green's various offices were carried out with the foreknowledge of the Conservative Mayor of London and the Leader of the Conservative Party. Decisions on Mr Martin's future must be made by him, and this affair should be left to the police to handle in the manner which they consider most appropriate.

5 comments:

CalumCarr said...

Jamie

I agree with your analysis but I think there is still a non-partisan reason why the Speaker should resign. The Serjeant-at-Arms passed information to him about a possible search and a possible arrest and it appears that he asked no questions and offered no opinion.

He should have had an opinion and he should have advised his staff. That he did not is failing in his duties as Speaker and it is on this basis alone that I believe he should resign.

Stuart Winton said...

Perhaps part of the problem is that the leaker was an obvious Tory sympathiser, thus given the pattern of the leaks there was perhaps a hint that it was as much about party advantage as the public interest.

To that extent your comment...

"The situation has been a godsend for the Conservative Party - it came at such an opportune moment that you would almost suspect that they had masterminded it!"

...is interesting. Are you alluding that the whole thing was perhaps engineered in some way? I'm not into conspiracy theories, well, not all the time...

But I think you're right that the issue won't resonate much beyond the political bubble, and given that politicians aren't regarded as particularly trustworthy by the public then perhaps it'll be considered that they 'doth protesteth too much'.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Calum - The lack of opinion is definitely a mistake on the behalf of the Speaker. However, hindsight is always 20-20. If he believed that a warrant had been issued etc, then allowing the Serjeant-At-Arms to proceed with her role is not beyond the pale. I think that that the problem has been the confluence of previous attacks on the Speaker with the current issue - otherwise it wouldn't have held as much weight.

Not a Village in Westminster said...

Stuart - I would love to credit Cameron with some Machievallian scheme to restore his electoral fortunes through the masterminding of this affair, but I think his success has been in turning what could have been potentially serious for the Conservatives (and may yet be) into an attack on the Speaker.

However, due to the lack of public interest in the matter it is hardly constituting a reversal of recent Labour gains, but rather a bit of festive fun to keep our representatives occupied. It's not like they have a world-wide economic crisis to deal with or anything...

CalumCarr said...

God, I posted quite a long comment today. Disappeared!!

I'll try later to recreate it.