Comment: Dear Maria Miller, it really wasn’t all your fault

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Professor Matthew Flinders from the University of Sheffield, Director of the University of Sheffield's Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics comments on Maria Miller's resignation as Culture Secretary.

Dear Maria Miller, it really wasn’t all your fault

by Professor Matthew Flinder, 9 April 2014, posted on The Conversation.

The news that Maria Miller decided to resign as culture secretary was not really much of a surprise. The only real surprise was they way that she had seemed to be toughing out the media feeding frenzy and the gradual, but very clear, loss of political support for so long. And yet beyond the sensational headlines the real – and arguably more important issues – remain unexamined.

Politics is a rough and sometimes brutal business. I’m sure that this morning Maria Miller is more aware than most of this fact but it seems too obvious, slightly too clean and simple, to blame just one person for a political saga that has rolled on for some time. In order to learn from this affair it is necessary to step back and examine the bigger picture in order to reveal where blame really lies. Indeed, what this less personalised account reveals is a set of blame-games at three levels.

At the first and most obvious level, Miller really was to blame; if not for the incorrect claiming of expenses, certainly for appearing to treat the House with contempt. This is a critical point. Politicians at Westminster – irrespective of their party – will generally tolerate many failings and indiscretions on the part of their colleagues, but standing up in the chamber and giving such a brief and curt apology was a terrible error.

And yet Miller’s general attitude to the whole investigation over her expenses seems to have been generally dismissive. The Commons Standards Committee criticised her attitude during their investigation, which it ruled was a breach of the parliamentary code of conduct. But why would a member of the cabinet adopt an approach that was almost designed to ruffle feathers and prolong and investigation? Humble pie might not taste very nice but sometimes it needs to be eaten whether you believe you are hungry or not.

I can’t help wondering what her ministerial aides and advisers – her spin doctors – were whispering into her ear as she adopted such a strident approach to the issue of her expenses.

System is broken

Although far less sensational - and therefore by modern media standards less newsworthy - the bigger issue in the “blame game” that needs to be unravelled is not so much “Media Maria” or her team, but the whole issue of parliamentary self-regulation. The principle that MPs should make the final decision over the disciplining of their errant colleagues has been stretched to breaking point and it seems hardly fair to blame Miller for the outcome of a self-regulatory system that has been the source of ridicule and concern for some time.

The system is to blame for much of the chaos and confusion that has surrounded the former culture secretary. The big question does not relate to Miller, or how £45,000 became £5,800, but to how we stop this situation happening again. Self-regulation is incredibly tricky, for the simple reason that not only must justice be done but it must also be seen to be done – and the public simply do not trust politicians in this sense. It really is as simple as that. And yet the relationship between MPs and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority remains at a simmering heat and the idea of giving the parliamentary watchdog increased powers is unlikely to attract support within the house. “Create a new body!” I hear the readers cry, but this in itself creates new challenges over appointments, control, legitimacy and control. But something needs to be done.

So, Mrs Miller … Maria (if I may), it really wasn’t all your fault. I have no idea about the advice you received from your ministerial aides and advisers, but in many ways it doesn’t matter as you’ll all fall from grace together. You were, however, a victim of a system that has let everyone down. Your resignation is not a triumph for democracy or a victory for the media, but yet another example of the need to drag parliament into the 21st century.

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