Joyce McMillan: Closing ranks at Westminster

The belief that Westminster is the root of the problem could lead to complacency in Holyrood. Picture: Ian RutherfordThe belief that Westminster is the root of the problem could lead to complacency in Holyrood. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The belief that Westminster is the root of the problem could lead to complacency in Holyrood. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Until there is real representation, voters will see Westminster as a place of elitism and cronyism, writes Joyce McMillan

The world turns, and what was once hidden is revealed to public view; yet few would have guessed, a generation ago, that one of the long-term consequences of the great change in sexual mores that has swept our society since the 1970s would be the grim series of revelations about child sex abuse that is now seeping across British public life. It’s not an exclusively British problem, of course. This week Pope Francis made a profound personal apology to victims from many countries over both the conduct of Catholic priests who abused them and the failure of the Church as an institution to act to protect them, rather than itself.

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Yet there is no disguising the extent to which British public life has recently been tainted by this problem, as beloved showbiz figures appear in court to answer charges of abuse and harassment, the NHS is accused of colluding in Jimmy Savile’s abuse of hundreds of vulnerable people, and allegations swirl around political figures such as the late Rochdale MP Sir Cyril Smith.

And now the allegations involving Westminster politicians become more sombre yet, with the revelation that files detailing serious accusations of abuse by senior Westminster figures dating back to the 1980s have somehow been lost or destroyed, removing all evidence of the reasons why no criminal prosecutions took place. Some even talk of a “paedophile ring” at Westminster, and there is an ominous smoking gun in the shape of a recorded BBC interview with the late Tim Fortescue, a Tory whip in the early 1970s, who – speaking in 1995 – helpfully detailed how the Whips’ Office, in return for the political compliance of MPs, would help them “hush up” potentially embarrassing or criminal scandals, including, Fortescue said, scandals involving “small boys”.

At the moment, of course, all of this amounts to no more than a swirling mass of allegations, now the subject of the huge and wide-ranging inquiry announced by the Home Secretary on Tuesday. What this latest breath of scandal is bound to do, though, is to strengthen the strong impression among voters that there is something profoundly amiss with the way the Westminster parliament works, a growing tendency for not-so-honourable members to close ranks in a crisis, and defend one another both from the rigour of the law and from the kind of transparency that would make them more genuinely accountable to their constituents. It would be dangerously complacent, of course, for Scottish-based commentators simply to assume that the Westminster parliament is an old and corrupt institution compared with the new Scottish Parliament, and therefore hopelessly resistant to reform; under the current Speaker, John Bercow, Westminster has achieved substantial change, often emerging as a far more lively and welcoming civic building than the security-bound Scottish Parliament.

Yet all the same, a series of recent events involving peers and MPs – the shocking expenses scandal, the mounting evidence of the huge influence of corporate donors and now the latest spate of allegations about sexual bullying and even rape – combines to create the impression of a parliament that is out of time and in need of substantial reform. In the first place, the House of Commons clearly needs a massive new injection of members who are, or have been, ordinary working people, and who therefore see their £67,000-a-year salary not as poverty pay requiring massive additional expenses to make it worthwhile, but as the generous, middle-class living wage it is.

Then secondly, both Houses of Parliament need to implement far tougher rules on members’ interests. Merely declaring that you have investments in, or are receiving large fees from, some company involved in the security industry or private healthcare, is not enough; Members of Parliament should divest themselves completely of interests which are likely to influence their judgment on such vital matters and should retrain themselves in the neglected business of serving the people, rather than re-voicing the arguments of big corporate donors and lobbyists.

And finally, the Westminster parliament needs to root out whatever traces remain of the sexually repressed and dysfunctional public-school culture that still seems to hang around the place like a long legacy from the Victorian era. Whether electoral reform might help break the traditional power of the whips, in an intensely adversarial party system, is an open question; the Scottish Parliament certainly has a more open and ordinary sexual culture than Westminster, along with a more representative class structure and a higher proportion of women.

What is clear, though, is that any culture of sexual neurosis and furtiveness – including clandestine homosexuality and covert child abuse – can contribute to a climate of political bullying and control, in which even as great a prize as immunity from criminal prosecution can be traded for political favours. There is substantial evidence – both biographical and anecdotal – that such a culture has existed at Westminster in the past, and we can only hope that the social changes of recent decades have made victims less likely to remain silent, and have empowered most people, including politicians, to find greater happiness and fulfilment in their acknowledged sexual lives.

When we in Scotland come to cast our votes on 18 September, though, this latest potential Westminster scandal is one more factor we will have to take into account. For here, as in so many other areas, we face a decision about whether the best way to achieve positive change in these islands is to stick with Westminster and try to become part of some new driving force for reform, or to embark on the task of trying to build a different kind of country, born of the age we live in. And this week it’s difficult not to feel the attraction of a nation free at last; not from our own demons, of course, but from the particular cultural hang-ups of that Thames-side palace where benches full of chaps still sometimes roar out sexist comments when a woman rises to speak and where some may perhaps have committed the same cardinal offence as the one for which the Pope apologised this week – the offence of caring more for the prestige of the institution than for the basic rights of the most vulnerable in the land.