There is a widespread, and not entirely unjustified, impression that most parliamentarians are venal, self-serving individuals whose sole motivation is self aggrandisement and personal gain. While this is a view with which many, including myself, would disagree it can at times be frustratingly difficult to maintain a defence of parliament and its members. The parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 revealed that while administering its own expenses regime MPs had been allowed to claim thousands of pounds for second homes and incidental expenses as diverse as cat food, duck houses and pay-per-view pornographic movies. The fall out from the expenses scandal led to a number of Ministerial resignations and saw five former MPs (David Chaytor, Jim Devine, Eliott Morley, Eric Illsley and Denis MacShane) and two Peers (Lords Hanningfield and Lord Taylor of Warwick) sent to prison for offences relating to expenses claims. More recently the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister, Chris Huhne was imprisoned for perveting the court of justice in a case involving shifting responsibility for a speeding fine.
These are all serious offences and it is right that parliamentarians should be treated the same way as any other citizen. However, I am currently in the process of reading the two volume history of Parliament by the Labour MP, Chris Bryant, and have been struck by the catalogue of crooks, rogues and ne’er-do-wells who have previously inhabited the Palace of Westminster. Compared with some of their predecessors, recently parliamentary offenders appear as little more than children caught with their fingers in the sweetie jar. The examples are numerous but the following extract which describes a catalogue of sixteenth century parliamentarians may well illustrate the point:
Then as now, of course, neither ability nor clerical status guaranteed moral rectitude. Thomas Martin who sat for various seats between 1553 and 1558, was accused of living with a syphilitic priest and committing buggery; George Acworth, son-in-law of Bishop Horne, held several clergy livings but was ‘put from his place for the dissolute life he led’; Richard Topcliffe so delighted in the practice of torture that he drew gallows in the margins of books; William Darrell had an affair with Sir Walter Hungerford’s wife and threw his own wife’s maid’s newborn baby on the fire; Christopher Perne stole gold buttons, was sent to Marshalsea for ‘pickery’ and was deprived of his seat of Grampound in 1566 as a ‘lunatic’; Francis Keilway stole his mother-in-law’s silver; Sir Richard Rogers and Robert Gregory were pirates; Walter Lee was a notorious swindler; Lewis Lashbrook was a forger and blackmailer; and John Killigrew’s reputation for cattle rustling, trafficking and smuggling while sitting for Penryn embarassed his older, wiser and duller diplomat brother Henry, but was easily exceeded by his son John (also Penryn), of whom it was said: ‘He kept not within the compass of the law, as his father now and then, from fear of punishment did.’ C. Bryant (2014), Parliament – The Biography: Volume 1 Ancestral Voices, (London Doubleday), p.150.
Of course in previous centuries errant parliamentarians were often treated in a somewhat more robust fashion than today and many of those described by Bryant end up on the executioner’s block, or worse. Today’s parliamentary offenders may well be grateful that they do not share the same fate as the MP, Sir Giles Mompesson, who in the seventeenth century was found guilty of taking money for licensing ‘disorderly alehouses.’ Bryant tells us that Mompesson was stripped of his knighthood and expelled from the House, fined £10,000, imprisoned for life, and most bizarrely, ordered to be dragged up The Strand with his face in a horse’s anus!