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The Quiet Revolution

Here’s some news you don’t hear every day — in fact, no one’s heard it for the last 367 years: Britain’s House of Lords this week suspended two of its members because of corruption. It’s the first time a Lord has been barred since 1642.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn, a peer since 1978, and Lord Truscott, who joined the upper house five years ago, agreed to put a loophole in a new tax law in exchange for a promise of cash payments. The bribers, it turned out, were undercover reporters from The Sunday Times. Two others, Lord Moonie and Lord Snape, were also investigated. Both were cleared. But as a result of evidence found during the investigation, they were invited to apologize for “inappropriate attitudes” toward the rules.

The House of Lords Sub-Committee on Interests said Lord Truscott “was advertising his power and willingness to influence parliament in order for substantial financial inducement.” He called that verdict “outrageous and slanderous.” Lord Taylor said he knew the journalists were running a sting operation and that he made “increasingly extravagant and outlandish claims in an effort to flush out the truth.” The ethics committee rejected his defense. Prosecutors said they don’t plan to bring criminal charges.

Neither of the Lords actually took any cash. But the internal ethics panel found that they violated their Code of Conduct. It requires members to “always act on their personal honor.” The suspensions will last six months — until the start of Parliament’s next session in November; Lords can be permanently removed only by the Queen and she’s not expected to take any action.

Over in the House of Commons, meanwhile, the odorous expense-account scandal cost the speaker, Michael Martin, his job, following a no confidence vote. It’s also been awhile since the First Commoner of the Land was treated that way — about 300 years.

The expense account abuses were discovered through the persistence of an American reporter, Heather Brooke. She kept asking for the information under the U.K.’s freedom of information act until she finally received it.

The Daily Telegraph, though, broke the story and has run with it. The staid broadsheet even launched a glitzy website dedicated to the scandal, complete with links for best excuses (“The garden came with the house. It was in a totally derelict state and had not been touched in 30 years…”) and the 20 most bizarre claims (ginger crinkle biscuits, 67p; ice cube tray, £1.50).

The Guardian’s Alastair Harper said that with scandals now raging in both Houses of Parliament, he and other Britons are having to “ration our disgust” between them. About the Lords’ debacle, he said:

For my money, it is Lord Taylor who has become the perfect villain. There he was, trying to look terribly confused over the proceedings, feeling rather persecuted, cocking his head in embarrassed befuddlement like a dim beagle. If you’ve heard of Junior Soprano you’ll know the role – the old mafia don, caught 20 years too late, pretending he was too simple, too frail to have been capable of all these awful things the FBI are accusing him of. At the same time he made the ludicrous argument that he knew exactly what the journalists were up to and was turning the tables on them. In order to, well, make himself look exactly like a corrupt peer. And no one can deny that he played the role to perfection, saying all the things a corrupt peer would do right up until when the story came out. What a masterplan.

And the AP’s Gregory Katz said: Few imagined that every lawmaker was scrupulously honest and frugal with the public purse, but the flagrant greed of many has provoked public demands for wholesale change. Some in Parliament are calling it the “Quiet Revolution” – a surge of anger forcing lawmakers to consider relinquishing power they’ve had for centuries.

We’re living in amazing times.

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