Opinion: The office of citizen

As most will have heard the Prime Minister has gone through something of a transistion with his Cabinet appointments. However, Cabinet reshuffles will not address the deeper problem in British politics. This problem is voter disaffection with the entire political system.

MPs’ expenses have merely brought this issue to a head. It has provided much needed impetus for reformers, allowing the discussion of issues – like reforming the Lords, and introducing PR – some serious air time. The Prime Minister’s problem is that a reshuffle has all the effect of an extra coat of paint to cover the cracks in a wall. The cracks will still be under the paint, until they widen and break through.

What really bothers me is the coverage of the MPs’ expenses fracas. While most focus on duck islands and moat clearance (rightly so: they are reprehensible acts that border on fraud), the question I found myself asking when the stories in the Telegraph broke was:
‘How were some of these expenses claims approved?’

Obviously the answer is that the fees office who approved the claims were as culpable of acting outside the public interest as the MPs submitting the claim. This then begs the question, who was checking up on them? Was it the National Audit Office? The Standards & Privileges Committee? If not, why not?

Not that I can rant too much. I never wrote to anyone asking to see any MP expenses. I didn’t check. I assumed that someone was paid to look after my interests as a voter and tax payer. I assumed that someone in Westminster would represent me …

Hang on, that’s the MP’s primary job.

Which is where the system failed. I did not check up on my MP.

The mess that our legislature has got itself into is as much our fault as voters as it is the minority of MPs milking the system. It was an American Judge, quoted by US President Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope, who said that the most important office in a Democracy is that of Citizen. How many of us can really, honestly say that they have been as vigilant as they were able in checking up on their MP? I know I haven’t been.

However, that is the founding principle that makes a representative democracy like ours work. We, as electors, must take an active interest in what our representative is saying and doing on our behalf. The simple truth has come home to roost now. If we are not vigilant, complacent MPs in safe constituencies will forget why they stood for election in the first place and start thinking they have a right to be there; or worse that the system exists solely for their enrichment and gratification.

I have a feeling the election results will be a reminder to some MPs just exactly who it is they work for.

* Rob Hart has recently joined the Lib Dems, and volunteers for his local party office in Farnborough, Hampshire.

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  • Ah! But are we Citizens, or only Subjects?


    A subject is someone “under the dominion of a monarch”, says the Oxford English Dictionary.

    The subject has no say in how they are treated – although there is an excellent sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the merits of revolutionary government among the peasantry.

    A citizen however is someone who does have rights. In ancient Greece and Rome that meant some citizens took part in government. So, in short, a subject does what he is told – but a citizen has the right to be heard.
    Maybe the problem is that we, and our government, are confused.

  • Frank H Little:
    I didn’t even know I had a SWP namesake!

    Surely we’re citizen subjects? I cannot dispute that we are subjects to the Monarch, but, given that over the last 200 years or so, the rule of the Monarch has been increasingly in name only – and more than a little limited by various democratising reforms over the years – would you not agree that we as citizens have a great dela more say in the political process than say the subjects under,say, the Stuart Monarchs?

    That being so, we as citizens surely have a responsibility to live up to the requirement that we scrutinise our representatives in Parliament. Accountability is the bedrock on which any functioning democracy is built on.

    Over the last 30 years this country has seen one major party or the other win MASSIVE majorities and govern as an elective dictatorship – not exactly conducive to effective opposition scrutiny of government. So, I would argue that in these times the voters should be more vociferous in their opposition to government.

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