British politics is in one hell of a hole because of stupid abuse of a stupid set-up for covering the living expenses of Members of Parliament. The system was meant to augment MPs’ income because successive governments since the 1980s have been too gutless to agree to raise MPs’ pay in line with, for example, doctors. So the arrangement was always a piece of classic British hypocrisy and now it’s backfired into the fan. As the scandal and ridicule unfolds, though not all MPs are embroiled in it, the body as a whole is naturally obsessed by it and their real business suffers. Here are ten key problems Parliament should be talking about instead of staring up itself.
1. Global economy: i) Mitigating the effects of downturn
A lot of the coverage of the economic crisis has become a discussion about whether there are early signs of recovery. Attention has been distracted from the effects of the downturn including social tension in rich countries and rising conflict risk in the world’s poorer countries. Both at home and abroad, this is an issue that Parliament could and should take up.
2. Global economy: ii) Harmonising recovery
When it comes recovery will not necessarily happen smoothly. There will be plenty of starting and stopping and it will unfold at uneven speeds for different countries and different social groups and classes. Unemployment will probably keep rising even after economic growth begins again because crisis is a moment for a great sorting out of thriving and failing businesses, with the latter going to the wall. Even whole industries can go down. So the big stimulus packages that governments have implemented are not the end of the story either for government intervention of international agreement. Work is needed to try as much as possible to get a shared benefit out of recovery, rather than one country or region profiting at others’ cost.
3. The low carbon economy
The UK has a great law that says carbon emissions must reduce by 80 per cent by 2050. And under that law we have a national committee that has produced a carbon budget showing how this can be done. But the green content of the government’s stimulus packages has been minimal and well below that of most other countries. Parliament should be pushing and pressing to get the green talk translated into actually doing it.
4. Banking as a public service
A few months ago it seemed most sentient beings agreed that banks should never again be allowed to use the smoke of complex financial instruments and the mirrors of paper wealth to build up pyramids of debt. One of line argument says banks should be regulated more. Another says that the banking service of storing and lending money should be systematically split from the flashy investment fund activities that banks took on in the past 20 years. Banking should become safe and boring again because that is how it will best serve the public. Indeed, it should be seen as a public service from which it is OK to make a profit, rather than as essentially a profit-making activity. This is not just about stricter regulation, it is about restructuring the banking sector; without any need for nationalising banks, it is a move that would be as radical as creating a national health service was in so many countries. But the parliamentary discussion of this has been derailed in the UK and neds to get back on track.
5. Freedoms & safety
The debate has recently renewed in the UK about the balance of freedoms and safety in the terrorism context. Justice Minister Jack Straw, to do him credit, has at a very difficult time signalled that some of the security legislation clamps down too hard on too many freedoms. Glory be – at last it’s getting said. Parliament is a much less effective protector of freedoms than the more pompous MPs often claim it to be, especially when the government has a big majority of in the House of Commons. But these days the government loses votes all over the place so it’s past time for MPs to rise to their duty and get the issues properly discussed.
In case our MPs have forgotten, Britain is currently at war in Afghanistan. While Parliament occasionally voices strictures against the government because of poor equipment or over-stretch of UK forces, and while there is coverage of UK casualties, the aims of the war don’t get discussed. As the Obama administration has recognised, Afghanistan is a combination of a series of very local issues and problems, a quasi-national issue (it’s never been a state or a country in the sense in which we normally use those terms), and a regional issue. The dimensions of the problem are very large and they penetrate not simply into Central Asia and Pakistan but also, merging with other problems and issues , into India, the Middle East and Europe including Britain. So it would be good to know what the UK’s war aims are. Do we have any? Do we have a policy, other than the old one of supporting the Americans? It is Parliament task, duty and right to find out and to subject the country’s war aims to effective and thoughtful scrutiny.
7. International peacebuilding
New international peacebuilding architecture was established three years ago in the UN – the Peacebuilding Commission, Peacebuilding Fund and Peacebuilding Support Office. In the next 8-10 weeks there will be revisions to some significant components of it. Most of what will be done is not headline stuff but it’s nonetheless important. The UK is the biggest single financial contributor to making the architecture work and has been one of the main governments involved in the process of review and re-think. Parliament really ought to show a bit of interest.
8. Managing the global commons
Major natural resource issues are rising to the top of the international agenda again with claims for ownership of large slabs of all the world’s continental shelves being lodged under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (deadline day for claims was 13 May). This highlights issues such as exploitation of the Arctic and of the resources (minerals, oil and gas) to be found by drilling in the deep sea bed. But as soon as you start thinking about this, you open the door to thinking also about the food provided by the sea, and from there onto thinking about other issues that affect food security. In 2007-8 soaring food prices and consequent shortages resulted, as the President of the World Bank reported in July last year, in riots over 30 countries. The issue has been lost to sight because of the economic downturn but it has not been resolved and will resurface, possibly explosively. It is not only the UK’s legislative body that should pay attention to the global commons and it is not only this one that is failing.
9. The Copenhagen climate summit
And of course, this is the year of the Copenhagen climate summit – formally speaking, the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – which was designated two years ago as the meeting when a new treaty on mitigating global warming would be agreed. Parliamentary discussion is sorely needed to review the government’s negotiating positions and ensure they are consistent and creative.
* * *
So here are nine world issues on which the UK Parliament really ought to get its act together and do the job for which it is there – highlighting issues, pushing government, demanding answers, making suggestions, tossing ideas around. And then there’s a tenth issue that is distinctly not a world issue
10. Reforming politics
We don’t need a new political system in this country but we do need a proper two chamber parliament, with both chambers elected, so that elected governments can both be supported and held accountable. And a small, small detail of what we need for democracy to function is a sensible system of remuneration and expenses. But in order to get this, we probably need a huge chucking out of MPs who are past their public service use-by dates. Venality has gone unchecked for too long, and according to several reliable accounts has been actively encouraged.
Roll on the next election.