Back at the end of May I was due to file my regular ‘Westminster Watch’ column for Third Way, the Christian culture and social comment magazine. I wrote: “It is not beyond the realms of possibility that, by the time you read this, parliamentary remunerations will be on course for reform, major changes to the political system will have all-party backing, PR will be on the cards and the economic crisis will have got people pulling together.”
Possible, but unlikely, I thought. And still think. For in spite of the neurotic pace of the daily news pitch (where words like ‘crisis’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘imminent’ are thrown around like gaudy toys in a pram), the major issues swilling between Westminster and the public (via the Fourth Estate) remain fairly solid.
‘The system’, whichever part of it you happen to be talking about, is constructed around inbuilt resistance. Since the MPs’ expenses scandal broke – just after I finished my previous column about the gap between governors and governed – everyone has been in favour of change - provided it doesn’t make too much difference.
Interminable wrangling and bureaucratic inertia renders Britain strangely secure, if not exactly Great, when reckless impulses threaten. But it also makes genuine reform, let alone radical reformation, hard. Unless something cracks irreparably. In theory, a climate of urgency should assist change but it often works the opposite way.
Though I am more of an ‘In the Loop’ than a ‘Yes, Minister’ fan when it comes to depicting political madness, I remain abidingly grateful to Margaret Thatcher’s favourite sitcom for one classic insight about this. In the midst of the panic-of-the-moment, someone (I forget who) blurted out: “We must do something!” Then he looked at a piece of paper and declared: “Well, this is something… so I suppose it must be what we should do.”
This is not just funny. It is painfully accurate. The impulse to ‘respond’ because the BBC and the papers are telling you “the public demands it” is powerful. Then you have to spend time undoing the things you have done, while pretending that was what you intended anyway. Then it is time to do more things. All of which kills the dreaded “moment of opportunity” rather effectively. This is why much that needs sorting may not be sorted out any time soon.
All of which makes it ironic that, faced with the recent brouhaha, Gordon Brown’s stock has fallen faster because his instinct is to think rather than react. Maybe he over-thinks. But overall it is hard to believe that we are in a mess because someone is thinking too much, rather than because someone is acting too rashly. (The Iraq war enquiry fiasco may be an exception to this tendency. Presumably someone figured the secrecy element could be sold in spite of its problems. They probably had it all pegged in one fiendishly clever policy diagram. Big mistake…)
Then again, when it comes to the promise of reform, what is often sold as action is, in reality, the repackaging of unfulfilled intentions through the medium of rhetoric. Self-spinning, as a parliamentary aide once put it. Here Brown seems more culpable – repackaging and repositioning, but much of the time resisting real change. Electoral reform is a clear example.
The moral in the morass is that, notwithstanding a tipping point reached through electoral disaster, or some new tidal wave of anger stoked by an equivalent of the Telegraph’s ‘longest scoop in history’, the real levers of change continue to grind longer than the headlines.
Which might just end up favouring people with principles, and the patience to stick with them, overall.
That is certainly the hope of a new initiative on 'open politics' which is brewing in various civil society organisations at the moment. Watch this space...
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his column in the July 2009 issue of Third Way magazine - http://www.thirdway.org.uk/