Trollope, scandal and Parliament

Whenever there’s an “Establishment” row one wonders why we can’t have a Trollope now and where the comparisons are with The Warden and its tale of sinecures and ambition and media witch hunts and reformist humbug. The MPs’ expenses row is no exception.

Jon Snow has expressed surprise or gloom that we have revisited the age of Trollope. Certainly, Trollope has shown us the way and reminded us to keep our nerve and to expect neither too much nor too little of human nature. But I think he does so in a sense rather different to what J S supposes.

The Warden (and its sequel Barchester Towers) is a story of an ancient alm’s house charity whose conscientitous clergyman Master is by chance very well rewarded even if his charges are few and their needs small. The story tells of an amiable and loved Master of round, unexceptional sympathies and genuine if understated faith. A younger nice but naive man seeks to reform the situation but is stitched up by the hack he has recruited to support the cause. As things evolve, we meet a fiercely ambitious rising star of the church – a bigot and an Evangelical – but a weak man dominated by his awful wife. They have their own candidate for the job, a man in their own mould of earnestness and nastiness.

I think Trollope’s point is that the old corrupt arrangement wasn’t right and couldn’t be defended. It couldn’t stand daylight. But it worked and non-one suffered. Its beneficiaries blinded themselves to the tiny iniquities and inequities involved, and that was a bit lazy of them. However, we are left knowing that the reformers are fools, humbugs and egocentrics.

So progress is progress, sort of, but it doesn’t make us a whole lot better.

And the lesson for today is….

The lesson for today is that Parliament isn’t broken and isn’t awful. It’s easy to despise, and it always will be. The people in it probably needed a jolt, but they are only human and we’d better get used to the idea.

The big problem is that we need big characters in Parliament. The job, the pay, the mood music – these must all tolerate and encourage difficult, tough, showy, brave, noisy – and yes, scholarly, legalistic, compassionate – types into politics. Jobsworths won’t do.

Jeremy Paxman once wrote a book in which he suggested that MPs were dysnfunctional chancers. He seemed to disapprove. But I would rather say that we need such people as MPs. No other type has the balls for such a life. It’s a life like acting, or freelance journalism.

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Publication date

17 May 2009