Today’s Daily Telegraph editorial calls for the MPs Code of Conduct to be scrapped, and replaced with “truly independent scrutiny”. It is mistaken.
This should not be mistaken for a defence of the bizarre decision by the standards commissioner that Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, both of whom were found touting their services to a fictitious Chinese firm, hadn’t breached the code.
But in a Parliamentary system is it unrealistic to demand that MPs be prevented from ‘marking their own homework’.
MPs sit at the pinnacle of our constitution, and compose the dominant element of our sovereign Parliament. They will sit in judgement over any regulator, no matter how nominally independent it is.
The best, most practical way to ensure that the privileges of office are fairly and honourably used in the present system is what we have at the moment: transparency and an enquiring media.
It was journalists from the Telegraph, in conjunction with Channel 4, who set up the sting which caught Straw and Rifkind. Rather than demanding a quango, that paper should celebrate the proper role of the press in our organic, flexible constitution.
The alternative, of course, would be to bar MPs from having outside interests at all. Make them full-time legislators and give them a substantial pay rise. There are several strong arguments against this.
Not least is that it would mark the end of the idea of politics as a vocation, and MPs as citizen-representatives who served in Parliament as part of a broader, independent life.
Not unrelated to that, it would make MPs entirely dependent on the Government for their material advancement. The only route to a pay rise – which all of us want – would be through loyalty to the executive and a place on the payroll vote.
Such a route might eventually conclude with the actual separation of the legislature and the executive – after all, being a minister has nothing to do with representing one’s constituents either. In pre-war politics, MPs actually had to face a by-election to join the Government.
Nor should the prospect of a Commons filled only with people who want only to be legislators please anybody even marginally sceptical of the ambitions of the modern state.
Outside interests broaden the range of people politics can accommodate, give MPs more exposure to life outside Westminster, and increase their independence from Government patronage.
If the modern Commons has a shortcoming it is that too few MPs have such a hinterland, not too many. Not for nothing to voters complain that modern politicians are “all the same”.
Yet the members of a sovereign Parliament are always going to be their own highest authority, at least in strictly legal terms. Thank goodness we have a diligent press corps to keep them honest.