Another good goodbye


From Martin Salter MP:

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab):

To misquote one of my contemporary political heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), whom I have come to regard as a friend as well as a colleague, this will be the last speech that I shall ever make as a Member of this House of Commons. It comes at the end of what some have called the Manure Parliament, at a time when the stench of corruption and personal greed has overwhelmed the good that we try to do and the reasons why the vast majority of us come to this place. In my last contribution I want to mount a staunch defence of politics and politicians: not as an apologist for the status quo-because I have always been on what one could call the Hezbollah wing of the reform movement-but because I believe passionately that a precondition for the survival of a healthy democracy is the holding of regular elections, and that for those elections to function there must be candidates. Those candidates who eventually succeed in securing the approval of the electors will, whether they like it or not, grow up to become politicians, just as night follows day.

Yet, if we follow the subtext of much of the media coverage of our politics-and it long predates last spring’s expenses scandal-things would be so much better if somehow we could have politics without politicians and clear out the whole political class. All the ills of the world are easily solved, all problems are simple, and politicians-us lot-only make matters worse. Then, by adding a dose of xenophobia and a dollop of snobbery with some implied racism mixed in from time to time, we have the gospel according to Rod Liddle, Melanie Phillips, Jan Moir, Richard Littlejohn and a dozen other commentators of the fourth estate, who know it all. Well, anyone can write about what other people should be doing. I have spent a quarter of a century of my life as a public representative, often listening to other people telling me what I should be doing. I only wish I had spent half as long hearing people ask how they, too, could come forward and serve their communities assiduously, as the best of us here and in councils and assemblies the length and breadth of this land try to do.

I want to quote-more accurately-another of my contemporary heroes, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who gave the 2009 lecture for The Political Quarterly, which I commend to hon. Members. That provided much of the inspiration for this debate. He said of politicians:

    “You see someone has to do it-someone has to take responsibility. As politicians we give voice to the hopes of the people and inevitably we will also feed their disappointments.”

Those are wise words and they apply as much to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as to Tony Blair or Winston Churchill.

We should not apologise for coming together to form political parties. It is what the public want us to do. They want us to forge alliances based on common programmes and principles. The notion of a House of Commons filled with 650 independents, unable to agree on a single thing, has never appealed to the electorate, although it is in their gift to deliver it. At its best this place is the cockpit of our democracy, where the battle of ideas is fought out, and the hopes and aspirations of the people who sent us here receive expression and are sometimes realised. At its worst the Commons can be a craven institution, in thrall to either the Executive or party advantage, and pandering to the baser parts of the media. The day we finally subcontract our law-making to the likes of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch will be the day on which representative democracy dies. Collectively we will have lost the moral authority that we have left.

We have gone far too far down that road already, giving too much power, without accountability, to unelected press barons who draw their political lineage and set their moral compasses from such repulsive headlines as “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” in the Daily Mail of 15 January 1934; I think that it has become more extreme over the years. Who will ever forget the famous headline in The Sun of 9 November 1998: “Are we being run by a gay mafia?” It was particularly demeaning to see the former leader of my party attempting to formulate child protection policy on the basis of a News of the World witch hunt that led to a mob attack on the home of a paediatrician, rather than by listening to the sensible, informed opinions of senior police officials and experts from organisations such as Barnardo’s and Save the Children, who know a thing or two about managing paeodphiles released from prison. We have yet to find out what price Mr. Murdoch has extracted from the Leader of the Opposition in return for the political endorsement of The Sun. I worry that we may see the break-up of the BBC and certainly a diminution in the regulatory powers of Ofcom.

Perhaps it is fitting, as a former shop steward, to end by speaking up for the trade of politics. I implore those who follow on in this place to promote nothing less than a cultural revolution in our political life. The vicious, build-them-up, knock-them-down culture is a self-defeating road to nowhere except personality-driven politics. This House of Commons must remain central to our national political life. It must never be treated merely as a vehicle for policy announcements and party press releases. To brush it aside is to brush aside the one powerful tool that our democracy bestows on its citizens. We should remember that power vacuums never remain in place for long. Our politics may not be perfect, but when politics fails, people with guns invariably take over.



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