Austin Mitchell: a maverick
for all seasons and reasons?

MPs’ instinctive reaction to criticism of their salaries, expenses and allowances has been to rail against any delving into how Taxpayer’s money is spent or misspent. But it is not just this cocking a snook at the taxpayer that has diminished respect for Parliament but MPs’ abject failure to hold government to account, a significant reason why we send them there in the first place.

Thus last night I watched, with some fascination, Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for the fishing port of Grimsby, rehearsing the tale of how we lost control of our sovereignty over our fishing grounds when Heath took us into what was then the Common Market (see Hansard here et seq.).

I had thought to call it a ‘sorry’ tale but having listened carefully on BBC Parliament to Mr. Mitchell’s account and then reread it again this morning, I realise that ‘sorry’ is a hopelessly inadequate description of the story of how successive governments have treated the fishing industry in the UK and the people whose livelihoods have depended upon it. Having given it further thought, it is actually quite difficult to find a word that is up to the task of describing just what a shameful, discreditable and infamous business this has been since 1970. Alex Salmond’s intervention is also worth the time spent reading this speech.

But the other disgrace was there for all to see: the empty Chamber of the House of Commons as the Bill to subordinate the United Kingdom entirely to the authority of the Union makes its shabby way through Parliament. Behind Mitchell sat the inestimable Kate Hoey, but elsewhere the government benches were as bare as the beach at Skegness on a winter’s day. There was a goodish smattering of Tories but the Lib ‘Dems’ were conspicuous by their absence. This was presumably due to the sanctimonious hissy fit which they threw earlier in the evening.

The Lib ‘Dems’, faced with a massive internal split over their dishonourable discarding of their promise to the British people to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, have found a fig leaf (of minuscule proportions) to cover their tackle when it comes to the Treaty. This is to try and convert the debate from the narrow confines of whether there should be a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon to the wider one of whether we should be members at all. When their amendment to achieve this was binned, they all stomped out of the Chamber. This is childish and petulant behaviour.

Thus the Chamber was largely bereft of those whose job it ought to be to see that we are not sold into the serfdom of the European Union. The British people know that this is an important issue and will be perplexed by the failure of MPs to pay any or any adequate attention to the debates.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that we hold MPs in contempt if they will not exercise even the small amount of power which remains to them (the bulk having been signed away long ago to the Euro Nabobery and to the unelected and unaccountable Eurocracy).

The present imbroglio concerning MPs’ expenses is only in small part about the expenses themselves.

Rather it is a symptom of the frustration of the British people with the political elite who, having got themselves a distinctly cushy billet in Parliament, have decided that they are not going to rock the boat by acting in the interests of the British people and of Britain. Instead have decided simply to turn up like so many Gaderene Swine when summoned by the division bell to vote according to the requirements of their Whips solely in the partisan interest of their party.

I see the fury of the British people at the indefensible arrangements concerning the structure of and openness of the system of expenses and allowances as a means by which we can get their attention in the matter of the whole business of rebuilding that element of trust which must, for our democracy to work properly and in the interests of our nation, exist between governed and governing.

If we can win this battle and force them to come to heel, then we can set about the business of persuading them properly to dishcarge their duty to uphold the sovereignty of our country and to hold our government to account.