The Commons did not want John Wilkes amongst them, but the people had a disreputable habit of electing him. In 1769, the Commons expelled Wilkes three times, and he was re-elected. Never since has the House of Commons tried to pick and choose its own members, until recent years.
The ‘recall’ of members is a recently innovation, and it has generally had public support. It is a limited remedy, unlike its equivalents in America: in places with a ‘recall’ system, no elected official can feel safe to get on with the job when any disgruntled group of residents can call for a vote to remove them, and cause all the personal expense of a new, untimely election campaign. No reason need be given over there. Here, it is applied only where a Member has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to any time at all in prison however short, or of a false expenses claim, or if he or she has been suspended from sitting for 10 days upon a judgment of the Orwellian-sounding Committee on Standards.
This is a constitutional problem. A crime, judged by due process of law, by rules of evidence and procedure and heard by an impartial judge and jury is cut and dried. It is understandable that a lawmaker should not be a proven lawbreaker in a serious degree. You must question whether a short sentence should have such a dramatic effect, but at least the judgment is an unimpeachable public condemnation. However just breaking an internal rule, made by politicians, judged by politicians, and with a miniscule sanction; that allows the Commons to pick and choose its own members.
John Wilkes may be stirring in his grave.
The recall procedure, it may be objected, is not so simple: after the Speaker certifies that the condition is met, it still needs a petition by 10% of the constituency electorate to trigger a by-election, and the cast-out MP can stand again, as Wilkes did. That is form though, not reality. Any party organisation worth its salt can arrange a 10% petition against their opponent, stopping people in the street with lurid tales if necessary, so the by-election should be considered a foregone conclusion. Then if the recalled MP stands again, he or she is damaged goods, trailing accusations and a proven conviction. The initial trigger then is as good as expelling the MP.
The pettiness of what can topple an MP is astounding, in constitutional terms: a year in prison is fair enough, but misclaiming expenses? This came from the manufactured scandal current at the time, and should pass away as that enthusiasm has. I have never been in the happy position of having an expense account to play with, but it begs one to push it to the limit and beyond. Judging right and wrong and convicting by so much as a hair’s breadth should not topple an MP. If it is theft, then let him or her be tried and meet the barrier of one-year of imprisonment, and if the judge will not judge it so harshly, let the accused resume his constituency duties.
Suspension from sitting should never trigger the procedure. It is to put an MP’s position at the mercy of internal rules and an internally appointed committee of politically opposing members.
When the Recall of MPs Act was passed, it was condemned as a constitutional outrage by some Members, and they showed foresight in this. There is talk of expanding its scope – that would be real outrage.
The focus now is Rob Roberts, MP for Delyn in Flintshire. I will not say he is a pleasant man, and in private I will say much worse. John Wilkes too was a most disreputable scoundrel. If one is not willing though to defend those who disgust, one is not willing to defend any principle, as principles are impartial.
Wilkes was a libertine, a member of the Hellfire Club, a slanderer, a writer and publisher of obscenities – and he was hailed in his time as a beacon of liberty: “Wilkes and Liberty!” was a popular cry. Sometimes it is the worst of men who are the best champions for mankind.