MPs’ expenses and the great national sneer
The Daily Telegraph has undeniably pulled off a great coup in getting hold of the details of MPs’ expenses claims and publishing them. It’s doing it in dribs and drabs, starting today, thus pre-empting the official plan to publish them all together in July, after the elections in June to the European parliament and the county councils. “MPs’ expenses: ‘lack of moral leadership’ revealed by politicians“, shouts the Telegraph’s front page headline, leading into predictably grubby revelations about the claims made by a number of Labour ministers. By selecting this group for the first day’s revelations, the Daily Torygraph ensures that the widest media coverage will concentrate on dubious expenses claims made exclusively by Labour front-benchers: revelations about past claims by Tory and LibDem front- and back-benchers are being reserved for later, when public interest and outrage have begun to die down through inevitable indignation fatigue. In this way the newspaper will hope to inflict maximum damage on Labour’s performance in the June elections, although all the signs are that this will anyway be so dire that the Telegraph’s latest campaign can hardly make it any worse.
Of course there can be no excuse for some of the self-serving, rule-bending claims that the Telegraph’s first set of revelations lays bare today. A shamefully large number of MPs of all parties, on front and back benches, have apparently behaved carelessly at one end of the spectrum, and probably semi-corruptly at the other, with all kinds of petty fiddling in between, most if not all of it technically within the letter of the rules (which MPs themselves have of course approved), but in some cases miles outside their spirit. Moreover, whatever its underlying political motives, the Telegraph can’t be blamed for having procured (stolen?) and published the information, either: it’s self-evidently in the public interest that these matters should be available to us so that we can revisit our opinions of those caught with at least a couple of greedy fingers in the till. And because the Telegraph has got the addresses to which the claims and payments relate (information that was not intended for publication), it can uncover the sly dodges that some MPs have been up to more effectively than it could have done without them.
And yet, and yet. The whole scandal, especially after the detailed but partial revelations published today, has unleashed a predictable fire-storm of outrage and demonisation, not just of those identified today and in recent weeks as having fiddled or finessed their expenses, but of politicians as a class, especially but not exclusively focusing on Labour politicians (because it’s somehow deemed even more despicable to behave like this if you’re in government), and therefore of politics as a whole. The blogosphere is humming with contempt for the whole breed. So are the tabloids, and much of the broadsheets. Phone-in programmes on radio and television are receiving buckets of bile to pour over politicians’ heads. The illustrious ‘Guido Fawkes’ (not his real name), über-blogger and publisher of the smears of prominent Tories and their wives, goes to town with talk of villains, shame and charades; the Guido fan club, faithfully following his cue, falls into line with a raft of ‘comments’ — 134 at the last count — of which the following, all posted anonymously, is a representative sample:
Hang the fuckers!
It’s all unravelling. So is this whole fucking charade of ‘public service’. Nice one to the whistle-blowers, moles and other dirt-diggers.
This isn’t just an abuse of the system, it’s wholesale theft and criminal deception. In any other line of work she’d be helping the Fraud Squad with their inquiries. ……” Perhaps Redditch Open Prison should be her 2nd home for a while ???
cabinet snouts in the trough
(But one refreshing note of dissent:
‘Not foaming at the mouth‘ says:
“This whole thing bores me Guido, a lot of hot wind and self righteous puritanism.”)
But it’s not really merely ‘boring’. It’s calculated to bring our whole political system into disrepute, just at the very time when we need to support our political leaders, most of them decent and honest men and women trying to make the world a better place, in their efforts to salvage something from the current financial and economic disaster. My own contribution by way of a comment on ‘Guido’s’ blog post (not yet available on his blog, but perhaps it will surface eventually), posted under my own name, was:
The worst thing about these revelations of petty venality on the part of some of our politicians is that they reinforce the general disillusionment with our politics and our politicians, just at the time when we desperately need widespread public support for action by governments everywhere (and governments are staffed by politicians) to get us through a massive global financial and economic crisis caused by a handful of much greedier private sector financiers, not at all by politicians. Bloggers, and the parasites who merely comment on blogs (mostly skulking behind pseudonyms), might pause before they join in the sneering clamour of contempt and hatred of our politicians, to consider whether a few injudicious claims for bath plugs and new boilers for second homes are really so much more wicked than the money-grubbing greed and deliberate obfuscations of what the bankers and hedge fund managers and co. were doing with other people’s money to make millions for themselves while bringing down the whole financial system on which millions all over the world depended. Let’s keep this thing in perspective, OK?
Being an MP is a gruelling and demanding job: the mountain of dreary but inescapable constituency work requires you to be a social worker and legal adviser without any training or preparation for either role; working hours in the house of commons, although reformed, are still unsocial; the vast majority of the proceedings in the House and its committees are unspeakably tedious; the long separations from family and friends famously tend to lead to marital break-up, alcoholism and worse; the lack of real power over an over-mighty executive saps energy and will-power; dependence on the favour of the Whips for any chance of advancement to ministerial office is degrading; those who achieve it are generally unfitted for it, since ministerial success requires quite different talents from those needed to win a constituency election; many of your fellow-MPs will always be uncongenial company; you have little or no job security and your ability to hold onto your seat every three or four years depends on circumstances quite beyond your control; you are fairly poorly paid and if you make up for this by claiming all the allowances that parliamentary officials tell you you’re entitled to, you’re likely to be lampooned across the nation’s front pages and television screens as little better than a bank robber or hedge fund manager. No wonder the intellectual and charismatic cream of the population would rather be water-boarded than submit to the rigours and penalties of such a career.
But these are the people on whom we depend for rescue from the depredations of free market capitalism. Like the coal miners of the past, they do a job that few of us would be willing to do, but one that for all our sakes has to be done by someone. It behoves us to treat them more fairly and even — some of them, anyway — with just a hint of respect.