A non-partisan journal of the left.

Doing Politics

Sun 1st Jul 2012

‘The trouble with him is that he thinks too much’. Such was the description Peter Mandelson gave former Labour MP Tony Wright during the latter’s days as a backbencher. Another parliamentary colleague, a veteran MP, warned Wright that he came across as too much of an academic.

In the first part of Doing Politics, Tony Wright, MP for Cannock and Burntwood (1992-1997) and later Cannock Chase (1997-2010), provides a summary of his life. He discusses how his embryonic interest in politics developed from an early age, fashioned through the influence of his family and working class community, and cemented by his schoolboy flirtations with Socialism and Labour politics. Wright describes how this led to his eventual election as a Labour MP and shares many anecdotes pertaining to his time in the House and the reforms he successfully fought to introduce as chair of the Public Affairs Select Committee (PASC). The second part of the book comprises a collection of Wright’s articles, spanning many years, covering an extensive range of subjects from reforming the House of Lords to an interesting essay on the theories of Guild Socialism. One of his pieces, an article published in the New Statesman in 1996, warned of the emergence of an expenses scandal years before the matter came to the light. Other essays raise the question of ‘Englishness’ in an ever devolving Britain and whether there is a future for the Monarchy. He warns too against the growing number of ‘professional politicians’ and calls on the public to engage with politics.

The author pools his years of experience as an MP, the chair of the PASC and as an academic to provide a critical analysis of the major issues that have been debated in parliament over the past two decades. Themes that recur throughout his writings include the necessity (and present lack) of a civic engagement with politics, highlighting the threat to democracy that results from a populace not taking an interest in politics and failing to hold politicians to account. He has little time for those pundits, tabloid journalists and bloggers who heap scorn and ridicule on elected MPs from the safety of not having to make a binding decision. Though Wright is emphatic that MPs who abuse their position and bring their profession into disrepute ought to be held fully accountable, he points out that politics, and by definition politicians, have often been responsible for bringing about legislation to the betterment of society. To those who incessantly criticise politicians, he has this challenge: hold them to account to ensure the garden of democracy is well tended but recognise their importance in a democratic society; don’t grumble from the sidelines, do something about the problem. Wright warns of the dangers to democracy posed by a growing cynicism from both the left and the right.

Although not all readers may agree with Wright’s analysis and recommendations, his writing is undeniably both thoughtful and intelligent, evidencing his academic roots and strong credentials as a supporter of democracy, accountability and improvement.

Wright provides much food for thought and gives a historical background to some of today’s most recognised problems in society. He cautions against a blind idealism he believes emanates from both the left and the right. He can be proud of his struggles in going against the flow, including the wishes of cabinet ministers from his own party, to introduce reforms aimed at rebalancing the discrepancy in power between the Executive and the Legislature and holding individuals ministers to account. One of his successes included ensuring that each Prime Minister (from Blair onwards) would be required to appear twice a year in front of a select committee, a practice previously unheard of and opposed by a number of his colleagues.

When Wright stood down from parliament after 18 years an MP, Jack Straw, described him as a ‘paradigm of the best of the Members of this House who have shown that it is possible, by assiduity and imagination, to be profoundly influential from the back benches, on either side.’
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