The Purge of Parliament

The British people are in a hanging mood, as the record 3.8 million (a million more than usual) who tuned to last Thursday's "Question Time" on BBC witnessed for themselves. A minister and a very senior member of one of the opposition parties received not just an intense grilling on the weekly politicans' panel but boos and catcalls too. I can remember nothing like it in my lifetime.

One politician's window is smashed, another's garden is vandalised. The MPs wake up each day to a mounting tide of fury and disgust.  

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What makes Brits increasingly mad is the daily drip-drip of further revelations about British politicians milking the expenses system. The spectacle of hundreds and thousands of receipts for petty or outright greedy claims reaching the press was never going to be easy on MPs. But no one -- not even the Telegraph, which has the files, and arranges a fresh intake of breath on its front page every day  -- could have anticipated just how bad it would be.

It has become clear to the average British voter that while the economy headed for the rocks, those paid to pay attention were busy filling out expense claim forms for home cinemas and swimming pools and mortgages that had already been paid off.

Voters, forced to adjust to an age of austerity, want the pain shared.

It is reminiscent of that moment back in 2002 when the Boston Globe obtained the court's permission to force open the diocesan files. For the next 100 days, starting in January of that year, the stories of abuse and cover up were never off the front page. What fuelled public anger, more than the acts themselves, were the reactions of some bishops: bewilderment, denial, self-pity, a seeming refusal to understand the reasons for public distress.

Seeing Margaret Beckett, the housing minister, on Question Time (clip here), put me in mind of those early days of the US crisis. You can feel history shifting. The crisis is not about individuals but an entire governing class. Their authority crumbles in front of your eyes.

Having moved from denial to bogus apologies the MPs are now offering abject apologies and offers to pay back the sums claimed in order to appease the crowd -- like the aristocrats in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies:

Barely had Lady Everyman finished before the Countess of Throbbing rose to confess her sins, and in a voice broken with emotion disclosed the hitherto unverified details of the parentage of the present earl . . . The Archbishop of Canterbury, who up to now had remained unmoved by the general emotion, then testified that at Eton in the Eighties he and Sir James Brown . . . The Duchess of Stayle next threw down her diamond and emerald tiara crying, ‘A guilt offering’, an example which was quickly followed by the Countess of Circumference and Lady Brown until a veritable rain of precious stones fell on the parquet flooring.

Just as in Boston there were only two convicted paedophile priests, so in the expenses scandal there have been only two cases of actual fraud: one Conservative, another Labor (both have been sacked). But just as the Boston revelations unveiled a negligent attitude towards abuse on the part of the bishops, so the expenses scandals have exposed a venial "culture of entitlement" among MPs. The result is a generalised disgust which fails to discriminate between degrees of venality. Just as, in Boston, all priests ever accused, however casually, of abuse ended by being treated as convicted paedophiles, so the MPs who have been caught taking full advantage of an absurdly generous system of allowances are denounced as cheats, thieves and fradusters.

To protest that they were operating "within the rules" makes them sound like those bishops who objected, under the glare of the lights and the TV cameras, that they had complied with the regulations. It is a self-justification calculated to infuriate the mob even more. Did you not make the rules? they cry.

The fury has come to rest, temporarily, on the Speaker of the House of Commons whose absurdly defensive comments have led to calls for his resignation by other MPs -- something not seen in the lifetime of modern Parliament.

The governing party, already riding low in the polls after 15 years, has slid to an historic slump of 22 per cent as the British people withdraw their mandate.

But unless there is a vote of no confidence in the prime minister and parliament is dissolved, their indignation has nowhere to go. They are likely to use the European Parliament elections on 4 June -- normally a ballot that leaves voters cold -- to tell the Government it's time to go.

Then the drama will move to angry constituency parties, who are likely to de-select MPs who have been caught with their hands in the till. Only the demonstrably angelic will survive. The public will divide MPs into sheeps and goats, and send the latter into the furnace.

The Great Purge has begun.

Where it ends is anybody's guess.

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