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.
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