May 2009

Final (?) thoughts on the expenses scandal

Over in Britain, the MPs expenses palaver continues to shock and amuse in equal measure. Not because of the (relatively trivial) sums of money lost to the treasury, but because of what it says about those in power. It’s sneaking a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. And it has revealed some genuinely sordid and unsavoury behaviour. Better yet though, have been the confused attempts to mitigate it, to explain it away. They have revealed a group of people utterly disconnected from those they represent. So disconnected, in fact, that they don’t realise waving personal cheques around on national TV isn’t entirely appropriate right now.

Or take Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who appears to defend the lax expenses rules (in an article in The Independent) by insisting that MPs don’t get paid enough. The public, it seems, do not believe MPs are worth paying what Dorries insists they’re worth. As a result, they naturally had to find some other way of getting the money that Dorries says they’re worth.

Except, as Tim Worstall points out, this isn’t an entirely sound defence, as it amounts to:

You wouldn’t give us more money so we took it without you knowing.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I was in industry, I never felt as though I were getting paid enough. And I mean that in all seriousness. This isn’t just a piece of rhetoric. I did not feel as though my actual value to the company (my contribution to the bottom line) was in any way proportionately reflected in my salary. As a result, I felt little guilt about using company resources (in the form of paper, printing and photocopying) to publish a few small-circulation zines.

Here’s the point though… if I’d been discovered, I would have — justifiably — been held to account. In truth the infraction was so small and my value to the business large enough that I could probably have retained my job if I’d been contrite enough and made amends and gave guarantees that it would never happen again, etc. etc. But there’s no way around the fact that I would have been in hot water. It’s not like I didn’t know the salary when I took the job.

Dorries then goes on to suggest that by shining a light on the expenses of MPs and telling the British public where their money is being spent, newspapers are guilty of a “McCarthyite witch hunt”. That MPs are being subjected to “a form of torture” which may even drive someone to suicide.

Interestingly, there may be something to her concern. Public humiliation is one of those strange pressure points that can trigger extreme behaviour in some people. And I suspect there might even be something to the idea that the kind of person who is most susceptible to public humiliation would be drawn towards a career in the public eye. That’s just idle speculation though, and there’s probably not much to be done about it. It’s certainly not a reason to overlook petty corruption in politics. Being neurotic sadly does not exonerate you from all wrongdoing.

I only wish it did.

Amongst the revelations during the McCarthyite witch hunt, is the eyebrowing-raising fact that even within the current climate of hostility towards the perceived privileges of power, David Cameron managed to forget how many houses he owns. It boggles the mind. Not just that he said (to paraphrase) “two… oh wait, I think it’s four”, but that once this scandal became a national obsession he didn’t spend ten minutes every morning in front of a mirror rehearsing his answer to “how many houses do you own?”

Is he just thick?

Posted in: Opinion