You're missing the point, archbishop told over scandal-hit MPs

By staff writers
May 23, 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams is being accused by commentators of complacency and instititutional isolation for his suggestion that MPs are being humiliated in the current expenses scandal and that this could irreparably damage public life and public confidence in politics.

The archbishop made his remarks in an article today for the Times newspaper. He says that grave and urgent action is required but adds that "many will now be wondering whether the point has not been adequately made: the continuing systematic humiliation of politicians itself threatens to carry a heavy price in terms of our ability to salvage some confidence in our democracy.”

However, the results of a poll released today, commissioned by the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, has challenged the Dr Williams' suggestion that democracy will be damaged by the revelations about MPs expenses.

The results of the telephone poll indicate that rather than damaging democracy, the expenses scandal has brought a new interest in politics and a willingness to back new political initiatives such as independent candidates.

The survey commissioned by Ekklesia and conducted by polling organisation ComRes indicates that 78 per cent of the public believe independents should stand where MPs have behaved 'unethically'. 63 per cent said that they thought democracy would be enriched if more independent MPs were elected to Parliament.

This compares with just 61 per cent who voted at the last general election.

Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley said: "Rather than turning people off politics, our survey suggests that the expenses scandal has brought a new revival of interest in politics.

"The poll suggests that the real problem has been an old party-dominated system which has been inaccessible. In contrast, the fall-out from the expenses scandal has clearly brought hope of a new system and new ways of political engagement that people feel they can connect with. "

Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow added: "It is right to be concerned that an orgy of self-vindicating finger-pointing may detract from the urgent need for radical renewal of public institutions and from the awareness that the seeds of corruption are not just in one place or in "that lot". But beyond the intense anger that many rightly feel, there is perhaps more critical awareness than the archbishop credits."

He continued: "The gap between governed and governors is the really dangerous one, because it allows both to blame the other while nothing changes. Our poll indicates that the appetite for change is now real and should not be missed."

The ComRes poll also indicates that 53 per cent of the public would 'seriously consider' voting for an independent candidate at the next general.

Ekklesia argues that the rise of independents can be a useful challenge to the inadequacies of the way the parliamentary system works, the lack of voting reform, the lack of transparency and the lack of public engagement.

But it says that a much larger process of reform and renewal is needed. There is no single 'push button' solution to the demise of a healthy political culture.

Nevertheless, quality local candidates like Dr Richard Taylor, independent MP for Kidderminster, who stood because he was concerned about the neglect of the health service by the main parties, indicates that non-party politics can be about much more than protest or eccentricity - as some cynics are suggesting.

On the archbishop, Ekklesia's Simon Barrow adds: "Dr Williams is a good and incredibly thoughtful man. He's trying to pick up an important human dimension of the expenses furore that people may be missing. But it is difficult for this to be heard in the political whirlwind, and his view does come across as a 'top-down' perspective.

"He's right that kangaroo courts and self-righteous indignation distort the picture and can be damaging to our self- and other- perception (a subtle but important point) but mistaken in leaning this on what ends up looking like one establishment club's defence of another - in spite of his sensible suggestions for reform, which are being overlooked."

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.