Now & Then

A house of ill repute

There’s something of a consensus forming at Westminster’s House of Commons that the Seven Deadly Sins have replaced the Seven (Nolan) Principles of Public Life as the basis of conduct amongst its upper echelons. Inadvertently, of course. No Member of Parliament would directly accuse another of lying or – as they prefer – “misleading the House”. Not, that is, without risking the Speaker’s wrath and their own expulsion. This causes many MPs to speak in aphorisms and metaphors. There’ve been many references in Hansard lately to “bad apples”, and by extension, “rotten apple trees,” from which of course bad apples never fall far. Perhaps things have reached a recent nadir, but MPs haven’t always been exemplars of Nolan’s seven noble virtues. The assembly of 1377, in the time of King Richard II (a monarch himself made famous by Shakespeare for his alleged misrule), was even called the “Bad Parliament”. Apart from its attempts to institutionalise corruption, its most invidious accomplishment was to incite a peasants’ revolt by imposing a poll tax. Another example is the “rotten boroughs” preceding the Great Reform Act of 1832, resulting from Parliament’s centuries of haphazard evolution, constituencies effectively up for sale to the rich and powerful. An MP or even two might be returned by as few as half a dozen voters, and – if they were anything like the fictional borough of Dunny-on-the-Wold dished up in the TV comedy Blackadder – “three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin, and a small hen in its late forties.” Some might say the current voting system offers little improvement. And, of course, we don’t have to travel so far back in time to find MPs up to no good. Let’s not forget the widespread misuse of parliamentary allowances just over a decade ago, known as the “expenses scandal”, which saw some MPs sent to prison. No, when it comes to MPs behaving badly, perhaps the French say it best: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Current Affairs

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