Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time opens with the following vignette – an illustration of the philosophical challenge faced by anyone attempting to explain how the universe works.
“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
That old lady’s absurd, anachronistic insistence calls to mind the response of many MPs to allegations of bullying and harassment in parliament, much of it perpetrated by their colleagues.
Last month, the results of an independent inquiry into that very issue by the retired High Court judge Laura Cox, commissioned in March, described a “culture, cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”. In a direct rebuke to Speaker Bercow, who denies several allegations of bullying, she added: “I find it difficult to envisage how the necessary changes can be successfully delivered, and the confidence of the staff restored, under the current senior House administration.”
The diagnosis of an endemic culture of bullying was clear – indeed, much clearer than most people involved in the process expected. Ditto the cure – in short, the departure of Bercow and the rest of the parliamentary leadership. No individual perpetrator was named in Cox’s report, and technically it only concerned itself with the treatment of employees directly employed by parliament, not those working for MPs. But it could not have been a clearer indictment.
Some MPs, most of them Conservatives, some of them longstanding adversaries of Bercow, took this as their cue to call for the Speaker’s head. Others, the vast majority of them Labour, leapt to his defence, clucking indignantly about the use of Cox’s report as a partisan pretence to get rid of him. Their cod anger was balefully disingenuous. They said that the problems identified at length by Cox’s independent inquiry and its recommendations were so serious that they could only be dealt with by another independent inquiry. Of course, all of this was in of itself a partisan pretence, as Margaret Beckett later had the decency to admit: Labour MPs want Bercow in the chair as long as Brexit is a live parliamentary issue.
A new independent inquiry into bullying and harassment launched today (though its terms of reference were agreed in July). It will be led by another QC, Gemma White. It will report back in spring and will seek to establish the extent of the bullying and harassment of MPs’ staff – despite the fact that plenty of those people submitted evidence to Cox’s inquiry, which exposed pretty starkly the extent to which bullying in the Commons is a problem. Like Cox’s inquiry, it won’t name individual perpetrators or investigate allegations made against them. Its headline findings will almost certainly be identical. Everybody who works in Westminster will know them already, having lived them for years. So just what is the point?
That’s the question allies of Andrea Leadsom are asking themselves. “We hit a brick wall at every turn,” one source close to the Commons leader says. Staff employed directly by MPs have not yet had their own inquiry. It’s worth noting that the FDA, the civil service and public sector union, have given it a qualified welcome. “Any inquiry of this nature does have benefits in that it allows a bigger picture to be formed,” they say, with the added warning that it should not be thought of as a substitute for implementing Cox’s recommendations, especially on the question of whether historical allegations should be investigated.
But for those MPs who do not want to act, the political point is obvious. Bercow and the current Commons administration will carry on doing as they please – and as pleases their self-interested admirers on the green benches. And if anyone asks why or how this is in any way tenable, those MPs can point earnestly to the new inquiry they’ve outsourced their moral compasses to. They can enjoy a sense of certitude that’s every bit as ridiculous as that of Hawking’s old lady. You’re very clever, young man, very clever. But it’s independent QC-led inquiries all the way down.