Bim Afolami: MPs’ plight. Trolls, terrorists and thugs account for much of it. But some our problems are of our own making.

18 Oct

I didn’t know Sir David Amess well. He was a kindly man, always willing to offer a wise word, give a needed piece of advice, or do a quick favour. He was a real presence, and one who was loved by those who worked for him; it is a sign of genuine decency when a politician is loved by his staff (which is not a given in politics, I can assure you). His death has made a real impact on me and my colleagues.

This is not just because MPs look at the unrelenting, knackering, 24/7 nature of the job, and consider whether they want their life to be on the line as well. For me, it raises the fundamental question: what is the value of being an MP and does the public, and do MPs themselves recognise that value? What is the point of it?

First of all, one must be so careful not to use one person’s vicious attack on Sir David as indicative of the public’s views of politicians. The vast majority of people are decent and kind.

However, even a cursory look at social media shows some very nasty views out there, held by more people than we should feel comfortable about. Rhetoric and words matter to the mental wellbeing of MPs, but they can also turn into threatening behaviour and violence.

I have had a few tough moments in my constituency, but my female colleagues get it much worse. I know well over a dozen who have had stalkers, or else attackers who have been sent to jail, as in the cases of Rosie Duffield, Nadine Dorries, Luciana Berger, Joanna Cherry, Rushanara Ali and Rebecca Pow (I could go on and on).

Though many, myself included, lay a lot of the blame on social media companies that mystifyingly refuse to take more action on threatening language online, I don’t think that they are the entirety of the problem.

The more fundamental issue is that the role of an MP in our society has gradually been diminished, and is still diminishing. People feel freer to treat us in an appalling way if they regard us as illegitimate and not worthy of respect. Too many members of the public either do not know or care about our role in a democratic society and the work that we do. That presents us with some real problems. It is harder to try and lead the public through difficult, long term political challenges unless you have the permission and authority from the public to do so.

Despite the above, much of the reason why MPs have gradually lost our position and place in our society is the fault of MPs themselves. Yes, our fault. Why? We continually fail to advocate for the importance and good in what we do, and we often fall short of the highest ethical standards. If we don’t really believe in the importance of what we do, why should the public?

There are many structural improvements that need to be made to the way we do our politics. MPs need to stand up for the value of Parliament and of spending time there improving and working on legislation. That means arguing more with whips and the Government for proper time to do real work and debate issues on the floor of the house, and where select committees highlight how things need to improve, work harder to get sensible measures adopted.

It means advocating at a constituency level for parliamentary work (bills, committees, debates) just as much as the Liberal Democrat-style councillor politics that everybody feels the need to do.

It means defending yourself and colleagues (on both sides) when they are attacked by the public in an unfair way: we can disagree with the policies of our opponents but accept that they have a sincere point of view, and that should be expressed publicly.

It means saying that if we want more capable politicians who have actually achieved something outside Westminster before getting elected, we should at least pay MPs what a GP earns: as they do in the USA, Germany, France, Canada, or Australia.

However, in order to do this, MPs will need to be strong. We need to adhere to higher standards in lots of ways. The Commons should reverse most of the Blair-era changes and sit for longer, which would give more time for meetings and select committees in the mornings, and allow debates on bills to be much more substantive.

Proper time for debate would also reduce the number of terrible three or four minute time-limited bilge that often passes for parliamentary speeches these days. MPs’ personal expenses need to be much simpler and cut down, although, as I have already said, MPs’ basic salary should be raised at the same time. We need to persuade the Government to allow more discussion about policy formation both within the Party and in Parliament, thereby making it a much more open process. We need to find ways to encourage those who have already held high office to stay in parliament for longer, so that our political system can benefit from their expertise, which would take away a growing sense that the public have (rightly) that many politicians want to treat politics as a job, to be cashed in on later, rather than a life and a vocation.

Theresa May has been admirable in how she has acted as a former Prime Minister: Blair, Brown and Cameron much less so. We need to actively support the newer media outlets like (in addition to ConHome) Reaction, UnHerd or CapX  that actually try and publish analysis and news of real political issues, rather than the nonsense, unsourced briefing and tittle-tattle that we usually see in the mainstream press.

The reaction to Sir David’s death has been heartening in many ways. When the news broke, I was door knocking with one of my councillors in my constituency. At almost every door, people made a point of remarking upon it, said that they were thinking of me, and that they hoped I was OK. (It was one of our strongest wards, after all!)

So many people do recognise the good that politics can do, and how we need it to be better. But those of us in politics need to stand up for it, including the media. Or the sensible, sane, sagacious people we need won’t go into it; leaving the field for rogues and incompetents, which will increase the downward spiral.

The pursuit of power to change the world in positive ways is a noble calling. As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1905:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Daniel Hannan: It’s time to recork the Gauke

18 Aug

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I still do a double take whenever I remember that David Gauke is no longer in the Conservative Party. If you read his fortnightly column on ConHome, you’ll know that the former Justice Secretary is a Tory to his backbone.

I don’t just mean in the sense of being suspicious of big government, a supporter of open competition and so on. I mean that he has, for want of a better phrase, a conservative temperament. He is pragmatic, ironic, self-aware; clever but sceptical of intellectuals; a handy cricketer and a lifelong Ipswich Town supporter; an authentic champion of the quietly patriotic suburban communities he used to represent.

True, Gauke has a low opinion of the PM, and that prejudice sometimes leads him to put a needlessly negative construction on whatever the Government is doing. But what makes his column so readable is the tension between his dislike of our present leadership and his essential fair-mindedness.

I suppose I should declare an interest. Gauke and I were Conservative students together and, after we graduated, we both worked for Eurosceptic MPs – I for Michael Spicer, he for Barry Legg. We were later involved together in the European Research Group. Indeed, the Gawkster became our treasurer, a position to which he brought the same flinty fiscal conservatism that was to characterise his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I consider him a friend – though I should add that he has no idea I am writing this column. (Had I mentioned it, he’d have modestly told me not to bother and perhaps secretly hoped that I’d ignore him. He is, as I say, very English.)

That Gauke should now be outside the Conservative Party is a reminder that the fevered and phantasmagorical events of 2018 and 2019 really happened. Already, it takes an effort of will to recall those days: the court challenges; the pretence that a referendum that everyone had promised to respect was meaningless; the horrible sight of a Commons Speaker bending the rules with partisan intent; the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations; the Supreme Court’s glib dismissal of the 1689 Bill of Rights; the spectacle of a government being kept in office by MPs who would not let carry through its business but would not agree to fresh elections either; and, in the end, what looked like a breakdown of the party system.

A number of Labour and Conservative MPs left their parties, to the delirious excitement of the broadcast media. But it turned out that years of soft questioning on Newsnight and the Today Programme did not translate into electoral support. Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Sarah Wollaston, Dominic Grieve – all sank without trace.

Europhile MPs repeatedly sought to disable Brexit by ensuring that the pro-EU Commons majority would get to decide whether or not to accept the deal. The effect of their antics was to destroy the Government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain got the worst possible terms. The punitive Northern Ireland Protocol was perhaps their supreme achievement.

In September 2019, 21 Conservative MPs lost the Whip after voting to switch control of the legislative process from the Government to the Commons. They had varying motives. Some were die-in-the-ditch Remainers; some didn’t like Boris Johnson; some (Anne Milton in Guildford, Steve Brine in Winchester) had peculiarly Europhile constituencies; some simply fell in with the wrong crowd.

When the election was called three months later, they scattered in all directions. Ten of the 21 had the Whip restored, of whom six stood down and four (Brine, Greg Clark, Stephen Hammond and Caroline Nokes) won their seats again as Conservatives. Of the 11 who remained outside the fold, six retired, two (Sam Gyimah and Antoinette Sandbach) stood unsuccessfully as Lib Dems and three (Milton, Dominic Grieve and Gauke himself) stood unsuccessfully as independents.

Johnson is temperamentally unable to bear grudges, and cheerfully put four of the 21 – Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey and Richard Benyon – into the House of Lords. Indeed, I’m happy to say that Benyon, one of the most accomplished countrymen at Westminster, is back on the front bench as a DEFRA minister.

But not Gauke. If we can liken the événements of 2019 to a tectonic upheaval – and I think we can – then the Gawkster is a volcanic rock that has been hurled miles away by the blast. There he sits, a geological anomaly, reminding us that violent forces once altered the landscape.

At least, I hope he is an anomaly. Gawkie himself likes to write about the big-government turn that the Conservatives had taken even before the epidemic struck. A general realignment, he thinks, has left the party speaking to and for relatively protectionist, interventionist and dirigiste communities.

Such a party, runs the subtext, has less space for people like him: fiscal conservatives who are mildly Europhile. (I say “mildly” because Gauke never voted to block Brexit. He quit the party because he was convinced – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that the PM was planning to leave the EU without any trade deal.)

Such liberal-minded MPs dominated the pre-2015 party. We hear a lot less from them these days. Perhaps they have changed their minds. Perhaps they are keeping quiet, sensing that public opinion is going through an authoritarian spasm. Perhaps there has simply been a turnover in personnel.

Whatever the explanation, we need to remember that our party contains multitudes. We have had space, down the centuries, for protectionists and free-traders, for interventionists and privatisers, for Heathites and Thatcherites, for Europhiles and Eurosceptics (though this last division is, I hope, now as redundant as the arguments over Catholic emancipation or Rhodesian independence).

We are slipping in Gauke’s former constituency – and, indeed, across my old Home Counties patch. Yet our former voters – self-reliant, affluent, sceptical of state capacity and with little time for populism – are an indispensable part of our coalition. We need, not just their faute-de-mieux support, but their active enthusiasm. Finding a way to recork the Gauke might be a good start