A fortnight ago I wrote of how specialist interest groups may struggle to win the interest and support of new MPs after the election and cited the Cyprus lobby as an example. On Monday, the BBC’s Mark Easton broke news of how more than 20 MPs had visited foreign countries – one of them Cyprus – and then not properly declared their interests when asking questions in Parliament in respect to those countries.
To be clear from the start, there seems little doubt that some MPs had indeed failed to follow the letter of the rules to which Parliament requires them to adhere. There is at least a case to explain and possibly answer in that respect.
But other aspects of the story made me seethe. I haven’t done my research but I’m pretty sure that if the BBC had investigated whether MPs had acted similarly when visiting, for example, Afghanistan, Serbia or Sudan, they’d have found that there were similar discrepancies. But the focus was on Cyprus, the Maldives and Gibraltar. The sorts of places that viewers at home would like to visit.
The story shaped up as it did in order to play to the politics of envy and to rankle with the public. So, you might ask, what’s the harm? Well, the story may be short-lived but the implications for campaigns for positive change and the pursuit of social justice and human rights are likely to be disproportionately damaging.
As a Guarantor Power with security responsibilities and military bases in Cyprus, the UK has considerable responsibilities towards a fellow EU state and Commonwealth member in its 36th year of division and military occupation following Turkey’s invasion. The Maldives and Gibraltar also have genuine and important issues, the short-term effects of climate change and territorial sovereignty respectively, on which the UK cannot and should not turn its back. In fact, we should perhaps be asking why more MPs don’t visit them!
Andrew Dismore, on whom the BBC concentrated much of the story, has thousands of Cypriots in his north London constituency, as do Theresa Villiers, David Burrowes and others on the list. Their constituents demand representation in Parliament on the Cyprus problem. It is the duty of MPs to ensure that they are informed on such subjects and to seek to further their constituents’ interests. Their having acted in the spirit of what they are elected to do should outweigh that they did not act to the letter of the rules of Parliament.
In 1997, I went on a fact-finding visit to Cyprus with a delegation of newly elected MPs from the main parties. They did not enjoy a lavish break by the pool at a swanky hotel and neither did they expect to. They had two days of intensive back-to-back meetings with Cypriot politicians, UN officials and the British High Commission. They then got back on a plane and went home, better informed about the issues, possible solutions, potential consequences and the responsibilities of the UK in Cyprus.
Although Monday’s story is already fish and chip paper, if I were a new MP, I’d be reluctant to take up a trip to Cyprus, or anywhere that sounds nice, for fear of the consequences. For a cheap dig at politics, the BBC have risked real damage to the work of those who seek to better the lives of others, both abroad and in the UK.