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May. 27th, 2009

This is not the greatest corruption scandal of all time. Entire other continents could grab your lapels and tell you in detail what it’s like when their ruling classes lay claim to everyone else’s money. That’s not to excuse anything that shouldn’t be excused, nor is it to dismiss Moatgate™ as complete froth, but it’s probably important to have a bit of perspective. I know, on a blog! Imagine!

Please don’t misunderstand me: no-one’s enjoying more than me the scorched earth that current events are leaving behind them for satirists. It’s a bit of a dream come true to see MPs solemnly announcing, “It’s a disgrace that I was allowed to get away with what I did for so long, and we must act immediately to ensure that I can never do it again.” But it’s really not corruption on, say, a Russian scale. (I know, I know, I’m being unfair; after all, it’s a “young democracy”, an intriguing code for “We own all the media and imprison our dissidents”.)

In fact, British political scandals generally tend to be disappointingly prosaic. Yes, we’ll always have Profumo, but I defy the national heart rate to increase measurably at the more usual fare like David Blunkett and the rail tickets.

Neither, though, is it nothing. It is qualitatively different from trying to claim for those extra couple of drinks after your client had gone home. For a start, you would expect someone to be checking what you were claiming for. Also, it’s statistically unlikely that a large group of people voted you into your job to act specifically for their interests.

And people are angry. After all, there’s something for everyone to be cross about, from petty claims for things an MP could reasonably have been expected to buy for themselves—hellooo, dog food and ice cube trays—to outright tax evasion or full-blown fraud, while above it all there is an overarching sense of entitlement, encapsulated perfectly by Tory MP Anthony Steen’s claim (later retracted) that angry constituents were just jealous of his nice house.

People were already angry that the good times are over. Some people had not even necessarily realised that the times were quite as good as they technically were. Yet here we suddenly are, facing huge unemployment and cutbacks. (It’s almost as if warnings about the national debt were consistently ignored and all the grand spending that was trumpeted to us wasn’t being very well managed.)

On top of that, people are taking the expenses issue very personally. Every vox pop tells the same story: if any of the rest of us tried to get away with a fraction of all this on company expenses, we could expect to be well and truly carpeted for it—and in this case we’re the company. Not only has all this been going on in the first place, but the government, as well as the Speaker, have been fighting tooth and nail to stop it ever—really, ever at all—coming out.


That’s why it’s right that the Speaker is going. Some say he has been made a scapegoat, which will be true if he ends up the only person to lose their job over this. Others have pointed out that he has long been the victim of snobbery in the House, which is also true[1]—but neither of these things detract from his role in what has actually gone wrong.

Gordon’s apology to the nation for “the events of the past few days” was revealing, as were the Speaker’s outbursts at what he viewed as treacherous MPs. It’s not the past couple of weeks that concern the public; it’s the events of the past four years and beyond. That, however, won’t be the view from Whitehall; instead, it’s the very act of revealing that is indefensible. Any whistleblower is, by definition, risking someone else’s position and pension by drawing attention to their deficiencies. This runs counter to everything the sector stands for, and it responds swiftly and viciously. Whether it merely fires you on spurious competence grounds or goes all out and accuses you of actual terrorism [2] depends merely on the location and superiority of the office doling out the punishment.

The government are similarly ruthless in revenge—though, admittedly, usually towards their own side. Because of this, in the light of revelations about the activities of advisers like Damian McBride, even if No. 10 had nothing to do with this Mail on Sunday story demolishing the man who sold on the MPs’ expenses, it looks as if it has their fingerprints all over it.


It’s probably true that MPs’ salaries should have been increased some time ago and their expenses slashed, so that what they spent was (a) clearly theirs and (b) taxable. That never happened, but it was made clear to them that their expenses would be flexible to compensate. This is why they are all parroting the same line; it’s a sign of how often we’ve heard it lately that when this headline caught my eye—


—my first reaction was to assume that it would continue, “… but insists that she acted ‘within the rules’.” The phrase has rapidly become this generation’s “only obeying orders”, and there’s some truth to it. After all, if your claim was accepted, whether for a bath plug, a chandelier or a payment for a completed mortgage, then by definition it had to be within the rules—the act of signing it off legitimised it at a stroke.

Those whom the system has allowed to make fraudulent claims, evade large amounts of tax or profit from dubious property arrangements—all of which are described, hilariously, as “mistakes”—are bang to rights. Others named by the Telegraph have not actually been taking the piss, though, and it’s up to them to persuade their constituents of that. In fact there are an awful lot of politicians who are not on the take and are genuinely dedicated to the thankless of task of public service, but right now I could count the number of people prepared to believe that on the fingers of one foot.


The positive consequence of this is that the rules should and almost certainly will change for the better; instead of meaninglessly mouthing the words “transparency and accountability” like other people say “innit”, MPs will probably have to actually provide some. They’ll hate it. It’ll be great.

I remain uneasy about other consequences in the short term, though. The archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to have gained password access to an early draft of this very journal entry where I too expressed concern that the BNP might benefit from people’s revulsion at the revelations of grifting. Extremists and wannabe demagogues thrive on instability, and there was already plenty of that even before everyone suddenly had a solid reason to distrust their representatives. They’re bound to have more credence now in some people’s eyes, partly by virtue of their being complete outsiders from the Westminster system and therefore “untainted”, and partly because their claims to be looking out for the British working classes now have a little extra resonance now there’s a general impression that many MPs have been looking out solely for number one. [3]

Will people’s justifiable anger over MPs’ expenses—and if that’s made them angry, let’s wait and see what they say about the final bill for ID cards and the amazing NHS IT clusterfuck—blind some of them to the glaring faults of our nutters on the fringe? I am keen to find out.




[1] Tories who labelled him “Gorbals Mick” always took against his origins as a sheet metalworker. These are the same people who would always jeer “Drinks please, waiter” at John Prescott, even when he was Deputy Prime Minister, because he had once worked on a cruise ship. Be under no illusion, as elections loom, that this is what Tories are and it remains the constituency that they truly represent. Swift to become moist-eyed about the virtues of honest toil, they don’t half despise it in practice.

[2] As well as implying that Damian Green was somehow guilty of terrorism, the government tried to cover as many bases as possible by accusing him of “grooming” a civil servant to pass him information, an amazing importation of child abuse terminology designed to soil him forever in the popular imagination even when he was found not to have committed any crime. When he was, inevitably, exonerated, Jon Snow interviewed him on C4 News and, playing devil's advocate as ever, repeatedly used the exact same term, thus playing up to the stereotype of the lazy, lazy journalist.

[3] I’m kind of enjoying watching the BNP’s current campaign steering way clear of anything resembling ethnic slurs, religious ranting or Holocaust denial. It’s like watching a campaign for a whole different party. Of course, it hasn’t changed in the slightest. And the campaign itself doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny (sorry, it’s the Mail again, but it’s a neat little story.)

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
yiskah
May. 27th, 2009 11:04 am (UTC)
I want to hug you for your first footnote alone.
felinitykat
May. 27th, 2009 12:44 pm (UTC)
Ditto! Love this post, thank you.
chiller
May. 27th, 2009 11:22 am (UTC)
The problem with all this stuff is that it makes layabouts like me think thoughts like: "fuck it, why don't I just start my own political party?"

Which is pretty much the process that landed us with Galloway and Kilroy-Silk.
strictlytrue
May. 27th, 2009 11:25 am (UTC)
There is so much I want to say about this post - great swathes of it I agree with, particular points I would take issue with, but I really feel bound over more than ever not to make any public commment on it, even behind a stupid LJ moniker on someone else's LJ.

I feel fairly safe in saying that the Mail story was probably as much motivated by the Mail's anger at losing out on a scoop to the Torygraph than anything else. And the guy who brokered the story does look alarmingly like one of those characters who plotted a coup to overthrow Wilson in the mid-1970s.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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