Why the Owen Paterson scandal is an attack on our democracy

The actions of Owen Paterson have been endlessly analysed in the media over the past couple of weeks, but the real scandal is the management of the scandal by the Johnson government. Their attempt to abolish the Committee on Standards demonstrates their hostility towards the upkeep of standard management of our MPs which is integral to our democracy. 

The misconduct of Owen Paterson should not be ignored, but the most alarming issue at hand is the clear aim of the government to attempt to abolish the Standards Committee. The role of the Committee on Standards is of the utmost importance to our democracy, the most significant role of the committee being to: “consider any matter relating to the conduct of Members, including specific complaints in relation to the alleged breaches in the Code of Conduct which have been drawn to the Committee’s attention by the Commissioner” and to “recommend any modifications to the Code of Conduct as may from time to time appear to be necessary”. The ability of the Standards Committee to monitor the behaviour of MPs plays an important role in the integrity of the actions of our MPs. That any government, regardless of political party, should try to abolish this committee is a blatant attack on our democracy. Democracies achieve their goals through electing officials who will act in the interest of their constituents, not to broker behind-the-scenes deals of which they will be the sole beneficiary.

In Britain, we tend to idealise our political system in comparison to authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, but ultimately, this latest scandal demonstrates corruption is not as far away as we’d like. If successful, moves to abolish the committee would hinder the ability of MPs to be held accountable; besides self-interest and self-protection, there can be no other motivation for this attempt. We must acknowledge the importance of accountability, as it enables us to challenge our MPs and the actions they take. During the covid-19 pandemic, this current Conservative government has become synonymous with ‘sleaze’ and ‘cronyism’ which, unfortunately, demonstrates that the government is acting in the interests of their friends and political allies rather than for the good of the country. This is, of course, ironic given the government praises itself on being patriotic as the Brexit campaign demonstrated. The true ambition of the government is thus revealed – to protect their own at the expense of the public interest. Ministers of course will try and justify their actions, but it is imperative we don’t fall for their lies. 

Unsurprisingly, the actions of the government have invited attack from the opposition parties, as the BBC reports: “Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of “giving a green light to corruption”, speaking to the deeper issue of morality in politics. The main purpose of the Standards Committee is to protect the public from corruption, and thus they have a moral duty to protect the integrity of the actions of MPs. 

Likewise, the Liberal Democrats have accused the government of playing a different game to the rest of us, as the BBC reports (in reference to Liberal Democrat Wendy Chamberlain) “’You can’t help but feel that he thinks the rules don’t apply to him’”. To anyone paying attention to politics, we know that this is nothing new – Boris Johnson and his cabinet ministers have regularly been accused of handing out government contracts during the pandemic to their friends. This is an accusation that was thrown at the previous Health Secretary Matt Hancock who admitted he “committed a ‘minor breach’ of the ministerial code when a coronavirus contract was awarded to his sister’s company”. 

If the government continues to play by a different set of rules, it perpetuates and creates political disillusionment with our electoral system. This is ultimately because it reaffirms the “us” versus “them” dynamic, securing the reality that they are held to different standards of integrity than the rest of us. It clearly demonstrates the utter arrogance of this current government to believe that they can abolish the Committee on Standards, the same arrogance which arguably allowed Stephen Barclay to describe the scandal as a “mistake”. It is more than a mere “mistake”, and using such language entirely ignores and belittles the severity of this demonstration of corruption. We cannot ignore the fact that the sole motivator of this government which was to allow MPs to freely act in their own interest, rather than the role as a representative. This scandal is thus indicative of a deeper trend: politics remains a game for the elite, but it is the everyday man that pays the price for their failure.

Ask any MP what the primary role of an MP is, and they will most likely tell you that their job is to represent their constituents. This claim can, however, be challenged if we look at the diversity of the current cabinet and the profile of previous prime ministers. The majority of previous PMs, including Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May all studied at the University of Oxford, an elite institution that secures the interests of the affluent elite. Our political system thus still perpetuates the interests of the rich, which has been demonstrated on numerous occasions over the course of this current administration, which has only been in power since December 2019. Somehow, however, we must maintain our faith in our political system, believing that it, in part at least, still protects the public’s welfare.

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