May 2009

Oh. And another thing…

A couple of follow-ups regarding the farrago of sordid pilfering that is the British MP expenses scandal.

Firstly, it’s well worth pointing out that this kind of corruption isn’t unique to Britain. And you don’t need to look to West Africa or Southeast Asia for other examples. Here in Ireland, it’s not much more than a year since our Taoiseach (that’s Prime Minister to you, Johnny Foreigner) had to step down thanks to his own series of “accountancy mishaps”. Who could have imagined, when the Mahon Tribunal started to investigate petty corruption in local politics, that Bertie Ahern himself would come unstuck?

Secret bank accounts and 50 grand cash “donations” that end up as “loans” to Bertie’s mother-in-law. All presented against the backdrop of his strangely selective memory. And the strangely selective memory of everyone around him. He was absolutely certain he hadn’t accepted 50 thousand pounds sterling in cash from a group of businessmen in Manchester. Until it became clear that he had. Then, suddenly, he recalls the money — but it was a private loan between friends to help him out of a bit of a bad patch financially. If a friend of mine loaned me £50k, I like to think I’d have the good grace to remember it.

More than that, Bertie provided us with our very own “Hazel Blears and the 13 grand cheque” moment during his final days in power. At the very same time he was explaining to the nurses that their demands for a 10% pay increase were unrealistic, he was awarding himself a 14% increase. When a journalist wondered if it wouldn’t be a nice gesture of solidarity for him to forego his additional €38,000 (that’s a pay hike higher than the average national wage) he dismissed the idea as “tokenism”.

When the political classes can dash off cheques for £13k despite not really believing they owe the money in the first place, or can imply that 38 grand is a token sum of money, it might be a hint — and I’m just speculating here — but it might be hint that something is wrong. That far from the public becoming disengaged from politics, that politicians have become disengaged from the public.

Which, when you’re looking at the world from behind a moat, is always going to be a danger.

[Personal note: I paid significant amounts of tax into the British treasury during the 15 years I was based there. I’m not just some foreign agitator commenting from afar… I’m also wondering where Oliver Letwin gets off spending my money on his goddamn tennis court]

Rob makes a good counterpoint over at his place. Isn’t this all a bit of a distraction, he wonders in paraphrase, from the rather more important point that the gap between the richest and poorest in Britain has increased significantly of late? Even during the economic good times, “the real incomes of the poorest 10% of the population fell and those of the wealthiest 10% rose”. Isn’t “puppy-killer” Letwin’s two thousand quid tennis court repair, or Straw’s claim for unpaid taxes, kind of trivial next to that revelation? And shouldn’t we, the media and — gasp! — even the politicians be concentrating on that?

It’s a fair point well made. But I wonder if it really gets to the heart of the issue? Isn’t it just possible that a political class so willing to enrich themselves at the expense of the public might be part of that wider problem? David Cameron is leader of the opposition. He’s a very wealthy man from a very privileged background. His constituency is an hour from London by train… he lives just outside Oxford. So why does he even need “a second home” in London? One that he’s claimed over £80 thousand of public money to help pay for?

Yes, we know it’s “within the rules”. I’m not saying it’s not. But when you set your own rules of conduct, then pretty much everything you do is within the rules, right? Like a mafia boss insisting the murder he committed shouldn’t be punished because it was carried out according to the rules laid down by the Cosa Nostra code.

Cameron claims to believe that the public sector is wasteful. I can only assume he’s basing his opinion on a glance at his own finances. Within the rules or not, if the man had any sort of commitment to his own political beliefs — any kind of personal integrity — then he would have taken a look at that second-home allowance of his a long time ago. He’d have wondered if maybe the taxpayer wouldn’t be better served by him taking the train in from Oxford instead?

In some (rather more transparent) democracies, the state commissions a block of small but functional apartments for MPs to use while parliament is in session. The state maintains the place and the MPs live there rent-free. The politicians are allowed — of course — to buy their own place. Even start their own little property portfolio should they wish. But, like the rest of us, they have to dip into their own pocket for that.

Posted in: Opinion