'In the name of God, go'
What to do with Parliament? What to do with MPs who have bought and sold properties using taxpayers’ money, who have had their swimming pools cleaned and have even claimed for tons of horse manure on expenses? What to do with an institution that is said to be the cornerstone of the British constitution but whose members are preoccupied with feathering their own nests?
Similar concerns preoccupied Oliver Cromwell, whose statue stands in front of the Commons. In 1653, with the Civil War won, a tyrannical King executed, the rule of Parliament over monarchy irrevocably established and England now a republic known as the Commonwealth, MPs were trying to fix the new system to benefit themselves.
At 11 o'clock in the morning of 20 April 1653, Cromwell led a company of musketeers to Westminster. Having secured the approaches to the House, he addressed the Members in a speech about corruption that is worth repeating in the light of events three and half centuries later:
...It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.At Cromwell's signal, Lieutenant-Colonel Worsley marched in with the musketeers to drive out the MPs. The doors were sealed and a wit pinned up a notice outside reading: "This House is to be let: now unfurnished."
Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?
Ye sordid prostitutes, have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's temple into a den of thieves by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd; your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse the Augean Stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings, and which by God's help and the strength He has given me, I now come to do.
I command ye, therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. You have sat here too long for the good you do. In the name of God, go!
Now, this is not 1653 and the revolutionary New Model Army that backed Cromwell’s dissolution is no longer. But history has come a full circle. The parliamentary system of rule that was eventually established (with few people having the vote until 1867) has clearly run its course.
The expenses’ scandal itself reflects a deeper crisis of democracy, where today’s Parliament is toothless and powerless in the face of the executive, who in turn are accountable to powerful corporate and financial interests and not the electorate.
Electing a cleaner, more honest group of MPs would not in itself be sufficient in what has developed into a full-scale crisis of the capitalist political system. It is not inconceivable that a corrupt Parliament becomes an excuse at some stage (especially at a time of social unrest) for direct, authoritarian rule.
What is required is a new, democratic constitution that would transfer power to the people in terms of direct control and ownership of productive and financial resources as well as new forms of more direct representation and participation in political life. If Parliament is to survive, it can only be as part of such a revolutionary transformation of the social system as a whole, in which people themselves are sovereign.
AWTW communications editor
12 May 2009