According to Jack Kennedy, the greatest gift a politician can possess is the gift of being forgiven. Barack Obama appears to enjoy a plentiful supply of that gift, as he quietly drops one election pledge after another with barely a murmur of protest. For British parliamentarians forgiveness is in short supply. But contrary to much of the gloomy commentary that has accompanied the expenses scandal of the past few weeks, and the seeming implosion of Gordon Brown’s government, the episode represents a success story for modern British democracy.
New Freedom of Information legislation exposes a parliamentary Spanish practice. The media democracy (on this occasion properly representing public opinion) howls in protest at the abuse. MPs are duly contrite and promise reform—which in the end will probably mean some variant of the Scottish system in which all expense claims are published soon after they are submitted. End of the story.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. For a start, part of the point of FOI was to increase trust in politics. In the short term shining a light into dark corners was always likely to have the opposite effect, as is evident in the success of protest parties in yesterday’s election (transparency was also meant to improve the quality of government decisions but instead has pushed real debate further out of sight). Moreover, this won’t be the end of the story—the resignations and the expenses scandal have raised expectations of a rebooting of the whole system.
The trouble here is that there are two main schools of political reform—and they want conflicting things. The traditional, liberal reformers worry about an over-mighty executive; they want power spread about more and the legislature strengthened against the executive. Against them are the populist reformers (who have the ear of David Cameron) who want both parliament and executive to relinquish power to the people: fewer MPs; more referendums; citizen petitions, and so on. The former want to strengthen the rules of the old representative democracy, the latter want to reinforce the trend towards a more plebiscitary politics.
As the success of the expenses campaign shows, the tide is with the populists. But public opinion is an inchoate thing, only good at saying yes or no loudly—it can’t scrutinise…