The downfall of John Sewel can be seen as a morality tale – a case of hubris, or of the last remnants of Westminster’s ancien régime of political corruption.
While the events surrounding Sewel’s departure may be unique, they are reminiscent of a wider failure of British politics and a malaise within its governing institutions. Beyond the personal, the scandal has renewed the important debate in the UK about the reform of the House of Lords and indeed the British political system in general.
The Sewel case reflects the persistent belief among politicians that they should live by different rules to the rest of society. In that sense, it shares some key characteristics with other institutional failures among banks, child protection authorities and the police. Time and again, we have watched as institutions and elites set and live by their own rules. Indeed, Sewel was chairman of the House of Lords conduct committee.
The political elite think their bad, and sometimes even criminal, behaviour will be hidden behind closed doors. The problem with this – and politicians are struggling to make sense of it – is that the failure to govern their behaviour is having a significant impact on public trust.
The reason for recurrent crises in British political and social institutions is that they have been used to operating in a closed world. The presumption has been that institutions are run by good chaps who can be trusted to act in the public interest.
Of course, underpinning this assumption has been the notion that they set their own culture and make their own rules. As William Armstrong, a former cabinet secretary, said: “I am accountable to my own ideal of a civil servant.”
The fundamental cause of the House of Commons expenses scandal was that MPs were setting their own rules and judging those rules about expenses. When the public found out, many MPs expressed shock that this was seen as unacceptable because they were honourable people. They could not appreciate how disconnected they were from their voters.
These events reveal some fundamental problems with British democracy. Britain has political institutions based on a 19th-century conception of democracy. These institutions were created when a small elite ruled and was elected by a slightly bigger electorate. The core political framework has not changed to reflect industrialisation and a mass electorate.
The House of Lords is one of the best exemplars of this problem in action. Even after reform, members of the House of Lords continue to be appointed by a set of arcane rules rather than being elected.
The fact that David Cameron sees his slender victory as an opportunity to appoint more Conservatives to the House of Lords (without public input) reflects the deformed nature of Britain’s political system.
Even the elected institutions exist on the basis that they are the ones who know how to govern and rarely give citizens any chance to determine policy issues. Democratic input is through an occasional vote, not participation in decisions.
The advent of digital technology has undermined the closed information world. Sewel is not the first to be caught in a digital trap. The misrepresentation of the death of the newspaper salesman, Ian Tomlinson, was revealed by mobile phone footage. The widespread availability of information mean that institutions are increasingly being challenged over how they make decisions. Misdemeanors are being revealed, and the public can see that those running institutions may have feet of clay.
There are signs that the public is beginning to vote for change. The 2015 election saw the rise of anti-establishment parties with the success of the SNP in Scotland and the strong performance of UKIP in the rest of the UK. In many ways the rise of these parties was seen as reflection of a wider distrust of the establishment elite.
The big question remains though: what is to be done with this broken system? Despite the election result, politicians have reverted to type and have shown very little sign of searching for an urgent response to political dissatisfaction.
The way to start to resolve these crises is to think about democratic institutions that operate in the world of open information and treat citizens as part of the process and not as a subject of institutional fiat. The House of Lords can only be trusted as an institution if it is open and democratic and not one seemingly controlled by and for a political elite.