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Viva Inghiltalia?

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Robin Lustig | 09:40 UK time, Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Politicians, eh? Scoundrels, the lot of them. Crooked, dishonest liars, in it for what they can get out of it. No difference between any of them, if you ask me ... kick them all out, let's find a new lot.

Esther Rantzen? Why not? Joanna Lumley? Yes, please. Gloria Hunniford? Sure. Martin Bell? Definitely.

We've all heard it - or something like it - over the past couple of weeks. But I used to report from Italy back in the old days, and I think I recognise something of what's going on. Because in Italy in the early 1990s, an entire political class was swept away on a tide of public disgust as a slew of corruption allegations became too much for voters to stomach.

Into the vacuum stepped a man untainted by politics, a man promising a new beginning, a new way of doing things, an impatience with traditional political structures. His name was Silvio Berlusconi. And according to an article in The Times today: "If Parliament declines in popular esteem and party politics becomes a messy and corrupt battleground, the stage is set for a British version of the Berlusconi factor. In Italy the erosion of rights and strengthened power of the executive is backed by growing state power. Backstairs fascism is already happening in Italy; popular vigilance and public protest may not be enough to stem it."

The political commentator Andrew Rawnsley warned in The Observer at the weekend that the lesson from Italy is "to be careful what you wish for". A letter in The Economist from a Brit living in Italy drew the same parallel: "The expenses scandal is only the latest and most obvious symptom of the sickness of our system of unrepresentative government ... Britain comes to resemble more and more the political casino of Italy."

We need to be careful, of course. Britain isn't Italy, and the MPs' expenses saga comes nowhere near the level of institutionalised corruption that was swept away in Italy in Operation mani pulite (clean hands). The American newspaper the Christian Science Monitor (now published only online) may have been overstating it when it reported: "Such is the extent of public anger and scale of the [expenses] controversy ... that Britain may soon face its own version of the "Clean Hands" corruption controversy which swept away Italy's postwar political establishment in the 1990s."

But no less an authority than former Conservative MP Boris Johnson, now the mayor of London, has concluded that something far deeper than fiddled expenses has infected the British political system. "The real crime is not the expenses system," he wrote. "It takes place at 10pm on weekday evenings, when MPs arrive in the lobbies, taxi receipts in their pockets, lipstick on their collars, purple claret stains on their teeth."

The Oxford don Larry Siedentop, writing in the Financial Times, seems to agree: "It is not just the mores of the political class but the political system as a whole that is in crisis ... A new constitutional settlement is imperative. It must include a British charter of rights, a parliament reformed by serious bicameralism (which would transform the party system and make executive control of the legislature far more difficult) and symmetrical devolution. The ancient constitution was a wonderful thing in its time. But its time is over."

So the political class is beating its breast and talking of root-and-branch reform, going far beyond tightening up on claims for moat cleaners and electric bulb changers. The Health Secretary Alan Johnson says: "The inner workings of Parliament are just one aspect of the political system. We need to overhaul the engine, not just clean the upholstery." We discussed his ideas for voting reform on the programme last night. Click below to hear the discussion.

But is there, amid all the banner headlines, a risk of going too far the other way? Is there a risk that the glare of the spotlight shining on the miscreants may blind us to the fact that some MPs - quite a lot of them, in fact - seem to have been quietly getting on with their jobs without milking the system?

According to the novelist and journalist Joan Smith, whose partner is an MP: "People have been encouraged to believe that we are governed by a uniquely corrupt political class that requires condign punishment ... This is sanctimonious nonsense, but it feeds into a pre-existing and dangerous disillusionment with politicians."

It's not for me to draw conclusions. But I'd certainly be interested in your thoughts. Is it time for a radical reappraisal of the way we do politics in Britain? Or should we concentrate on weeding out the MPs who fiddled the system and let the rest of them get on with running the country?


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