Actor Brian Cox is in the news: he called for Parliament to be sited in a provincial city, such as Wolverhampton. A staunch Labour supporter on the soft left of the party, he makes the reasonable point that the costs of London and its associated lifestyle led inevitably to the expenses scandal.
This of course got all the local papers going, as well as the region's politicians, never averse to a bit of free publicity earned by spouting some patriotic cant:
Mr McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, said: “I think it’s a great idea. We have plenty of areas in need of regeneration and I am sure all the MPs would get a warm welcome.”
Wolverhampton North East MP Miss Reynolds added: “If there was a serious proposal on the table to move Parliament outside of London, I can think of no better place than Wolverhampton.Nauseating enough, but not nearly as bad as (of course) multimillionaire property speculator and MP by 619 votes Mr Paul Uppal:
I think the idea of Parliament moving to Wolverhampton would be very welcome. It would make the whole place less London-centric and introduce more Black Country traditional values. I’ve always tried to bring Wolverhampton common sense into Westminster, if that could be reversed too by Westminster coming into Wolverhampton I think everyone would benefit.”McFadden's point is simply economic, while Emma Reynolds avoids any substance at all. Both efforts are less appalling than Uppal's lazy attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals. What are 'Black Country traditional values' and 'Wolverhampton common sense'? A strong case could be made for them being old-line socialism. There's also a streak of racial prejudice: Paul's predecessor was Enoch Powell. They're just empty phrases, the usual cant of the professional politician. It's a bit cheeky of Uppal to appropriate the city's supposed values: he doesn't even live in his own constituency and can't vote for himself. Could he point to a single example of 'Wolverhampton common sense'? His voting record is of 100% loyalty to the party line. He voted to cut benefits for disabled children, to abolish the Educational Maintenance Allowance, to privatise the postal service and to triple student tuition fees.
In this company, Brian Cox looks like an intellectual giant. Whether he knows it or not, he's echoing the sentiments of the Syndicalist movement of the 1910-20s. Particularly strong in the South Wales coalfields, the Syndicalists believed that their political and union representatives were bound to lose touch with the rank-and-file: once dressed up in sharp suits and drinking sherry with the enemy in negotiations, they'd become part of a political class. Here's what the 1912 manifesto The Miners' Next Step has to say
‘All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions…They… become “gentlemen”, they become MPs and have considerable social prestige because of this power.’
The leadership then starts to see the rank-and-file as a mass to be controlled for his/her own prestige, rather than as a set of independent thinkers. The syndicalists' solution was to dissolve the state and employers in favour of workers' control of their own industries, negotiating directly with the workers controlling other sectors of the economy.
Cox is nearly there. He sees London as the Great Maw, sucking in innocent politicians and turning them into self-interested cogs in a self-perpetuating machine. This isn't necessarily a leftwing or progressive position of course: plenty of rural Tories – especially those calling themselves the Turnip Taliban – see the city as a site of moral degradation. This is a long-running cultural theme too, hence the juxtapositions of bucolic idyll and urban corruption in Shakespeare and a host of poets' work.
As usual, I'm way ahead of Cox, McFadden, Reynolds et al.. When the Supreme Court was founded in 2005 by separating its functions from the House of Lords, I saw an opportunity. I wrote to my New Labour MP observing that it had no need to be in London. Justice – being an abstract concept – could be served anywhere, and locating the court away from the symbolic and actual centres of power in London would be a good way to communicate the separation of powers (even though Blair's cancellation of investigations into BAe/Saudi arms corruption proves that there is no actual separation of powers). Furthermore, perhaps judges and lawyers conducting their affairs away from the cosy confines of central London, gentlemen's clubs and Establishment haunts might inform their perception of life as it's lived by the rest of us.
JB Priestley said something similar in English Journey. Visiting West Bromwich (which makes Wolverhampton look like Manhattan's Upper West Side), he wrote about the degrading squalor of one street he called Rusty Lane. Despairing of the division between rulers and ruled, he says this:
There ought to be no more of those lunches and dinners, at which political and financial gentlemen congratulate one another, until something is done about Rusty Lane, West Bromwich.The truth is, of course, that the political classes, particularly those on the Conservative side, either never see such places or blame the inhabitants. As Boris Johnson recently said, wealth is the natural product of genetic superiority: poverty must therefore be the inevitable result of congenital inferiority. There's no solution to that.
Finally, the establishment of a major state institution in a poor city like Wolverhampton or Stoke would be good for the local economy. It wouldn't just be judges appearing from the train station: lawyers, administrators, civil servants would all settle locally. I pointed out the Irish government's decentralisation strategy (now sadly ended) and suggested that the UK should try the same thing.
Rob Marris replied to me with good humour. Nice try, he basically said, but no chance. He didn't go into any detail, but we all know that the UK's political class considers that it deserves certain associated rewards: Gothic architecture, agreeable accommodation, high security and little contact with the conditions the rest of endure unless under strictly controlled circumstances.
I would support moving Parliament to Wolverhampton, Stoke or any other deprived area. I would fund MPs at exactly the same level our poorest citizens are expected to survive. They could lodge in private rented accommodation and have to prove that they were working hard enough to claim these perks. They should not only see but experience the lives of the hardest-pressed citizens. I would make our representatives much more insecure and end their culture of entitlement. Proportional representation would end the blight of safe seats and key marginals. Second jobs and directorships would be banned and our political representatives would be encouraged to rediscover the privilege of serving the citizens, not 'leading' us like cattle.
But let's not kid ourselves. Britain's political class is a centralist as France's. They're too habituated to moving in a closed physical and social circle. This is just a silly-season story out of season, an opportunity for local big-wigs to get on their high horses and into their local rags. It's a bit of a laugh then our lords and masters will retreat behind their blast walls and smoked glass and we'll forget there was ever another political possibility.