Standards in public life: Where did it all go wrong?

Westminster is home to one of the most revered and well-respected political establishments in the world. UK politics has always prided itself on promoting its traditions, values, and high principles.

But after a spate of damaging scandals, Westminster’s reputation is at risk. Standards in public life have slipped, and the public may have had enough.

There are seven principles of public life that public office holders should adhere to: Selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Developed in 1995 by the newly-formed committee on standards in public life (CSPL), they are now more commonly known as the Nolan Principles.

The CSPL’s current chair, Lord Weardale, said recent events have eroded public trust in the standards of public office holders.

“There has been a lot of public concern about standards issues, particularly sparked by the Owen Paterson affair, issues around the redecoration of Downing Street and then more recently, Partygate”, Lord Weardale said.

“Members of the public are really angry”, according to Kathryn Stone, the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards.

“They’re very angry about what they see as conflicts of interest… that members of parliament get away with things.”

But do the electorate really care about politicians holding themselves to high standards if they get what they voted for?

Professor Alan Renwick, director of the UCL Constitution Unit, released a new study this month called: What Kind of Democracy Do People Want?

The study found that most people wanted politicians who were honest, acted with integrity, and operated within the rules.

Professor Renwick said: “What we do know is that for a long time, people have felt they don’t trust politicians.

“They’re particularly concerned about it at the moment because I think they can see that politicians at the moment aren’t necessarily living up to those standards of integrity that they value.”

The standards committee is currently holding evidence sessions as part of its ongoing inquiry into reforming the code of conduct for MPs.

Finding consensus amongst MPs will be easier said than done. On one end of the spectrum, MPs like Richard Burgon want a hardline stance taken.

The Labour MP for Leeds East is attempting to push through a bill that would ban MPs taking on second jobs.

At the other end of the spectrum, MPs such as Sir Desmond Swayne take issue with the idea of being forced to display certain desired behaviours, such as showing respect to fellow MPs.

Sir Desmond told the standards committee: “Members of parliament are quite entitled to hold views that others may find very, very objectionable.

“That’s democracy.”

Whilst change may be on the horizon, there is a clear opportunity for the standards committee to capitalise on the public mood over the conduct of MPs.

Esther Webber, Politico’s senior UK correspondent, describes the current scrutiny on standards as a “unique moment” for British politics.

“The final outcome of this consultation will possibly be more closely watched than these events might have been before”, Webber said.

Time will tell if recent events will be a catalyst for change. The politicians in Westminster are ultimately chosen by the electorate.

According to Lord Weardale, if MPs don’t clean up their act, “there can be a political price to pay”.