'REFORM? Reform? Aren't things bad enough already?" When Lord Liverpool reportedly gave voice to that cry of pure reaction in the 1820s, it was on the eve of the greatest upheaval to hit Parliament for 190 years. The Tory Prime Minister, who had taken his nation through war, depression, sedition and royal scandal felt, deep in his feudal bones, the weariness of one who senses his era, and his assumptions, are about to be overturned. More dramatically than he can possibly conceive.
Now, 190 years later, another upheaval is hitting Parliament. Where once rotten boroughs excited popular disapproval now a rotten expenses system has reduced the Commons, in public eyes, to a house of ill-repute. And just as the mood of the 1820s, influenced by economic turbulence and social change, gave rise to the Great Reform Bill of 1832, so the mood of the moment, sharpened by the pain of recession, and intensified by the collapse of confidence in established institutions, is for another great reform of Parliament and all its works.
Certainly the talk of the Westminster steamie at the moment is just how we can restore confidence in politics, especially after so much dirty linen has been washed in public. There are changes being instituted to the expenses regime, certainly, to ensure tighter limits on spending and greater transparency. There's a widespread hope that sunlight, in the future, will prove an effective disinfectant.
But the spring clean Parliament needs goes beyond just a reform of the expenses system, crucial though that is. There is a wider sense, as there was in the 1820s and 1830s, that the institution as a whole has failed to modernise in line with the rest of society.
For any visitor to the House of Commons the Gothic majesty of the place, the Hogwarts-style corridors, the tailcoated messengers, the wigged clerks and the elaborate ceremony of debate, are all much more redolent of the age of Lord Liverpool than life lived by any contemporary Liverpudlian. They underline a sense of distance from ordinary voters which the expenses scandal has all too vividly reinforced. MPs appear, in almost every respect, to live in a different world.
Defenders of Parliament's tradition have always argued they're there to ensure that the passions which political debate give rise to are channelled into a decorous and courteous debate. For example, if you have to address someone as an honourable gentlemen, or lady, and refer to them by the name of their constituency rather than "you", then you drain the political of the personal and ensure exchanges are civilised differences of opinion, not highly charged rammies.
But while I can see why so many of these traditions have grown up, in the same way as I can see why banks closed their doors to their customers at 3.30 every day, they are now out of step with our times, and popular feeling. Banks have utilised new technology to ensure they can meet their public's needs more flexibly, at any time of the day or night, but for too long the arrangements of the Commons have still seemed designed to suit its inhabitants, not those it's there to serve.
That's why the whole way in which MPs are paid, and their offices are paid for, will now be taken out of the hands of MPs themselves. Some traditionalists, of the Lord Liverpool stripe, argue that when MPs abandon responsibility for running their own affairs they collude in a denigration of the importance of the House of Commons. That way, they say, lies an inevitable, and growing, undermining of representative institutions.
I disagree. MPs have to show that we understand – indeed, can make the sort of changes which reflect – the public's demand for reform. That's one of the reasons why the choice of Speaker is so important. A job which was once a sort of cross between shop steward for members rights and ringmaster of the circus has to become a platform for reform and an opportunity to drive change. In the past Speakers have been chosen to "reflect the mood of the House", the next Speaker has to reflect the needs of the country and that is why the candidates should be making their case to the nation, so we can vote in accordance with popular demands, not parliamentary currents of opinion.
But change has to go further. Transparency, of course, has to extend to how every penny is spent, with MPs recording what they spend, as they spend it. And that transparency has to become a way of life. We need to know that the people employed in Parliament are the best for the job, not beneficiaries of patronage, so the whole process of recruitment and promotion has to be open to scrutiny.
One of the aspects of Commons life even the keenest outside observer will find hard to spot, but every member knows intimately, is the power of the party whips and the internal disciplines which constrain democratic life. So reform will have to see the whips, and the party leaderships, relinquish their control of Select Committees and other crucial aspects of Commons life so the independent-minded guardians of the public interest are freer to hold the powerful to account.
Of course, the sight of MPs arguing, on their terms, about just how we make these changes is far from edifying. And in that, narrow sense, Lord Liverpool had a point. When MPs have sunk so low in the public eye the last thing we need is a prolonged period of introspection, which risks teetering into pomposity, while huge economic issues also need to be tackled.
With things so bad, MPs deciding among themselves what they mean by reform is not the answer. That is why we need to let the public frame this debate in the most effective way possible – by having a general election now. Gordon Brown says a general election would bring "chaos". But is what we have now a very good advertisement for the current order?