Well, the MPs’ expenses saga rumbles on and on, with no end in sight, and I’m wondering whether our own Assembly is even more of a shambles. But you can see how this is feeding into the general mood of disillusion shading into anti-politics. The economic crisis, the decay in party organisation, and the parties’ convergence on some supposed centre ground that excludes consideration of all but a small proportion of swing voters, have created the conditions for a crisis of legitimacy; this looks like a catalyst. And actually, this rotten parliament at Westminster is just crying out for dissolution. The government is a disgrace and should be sacked; it would be ideal if we could also sack the gutless, sleazy opposition.
Well, at least the exposure and humiliation of a raft of elected representatives has spurred on proposals to do something to clean up the system. On the other hand, before we get carried away with ourselves, let’s remember the Tangentopoli scandals in Italy. The corrupt edifice of Christian Democracy was brought down; and it was Berlusconi, Fini and the Lega Nord who stepped into the breach.
What’s interesting me is the background. I think there are a few strands to be drawn out. One is the question Paul Routledge raised in yesterday’s Mirror, that of the changing sociological composition of MPs:
At the heart of the Westminster expenses scandal lies a huge, but largely unnoticed, social change in the make-up of Parliament.
Gone are the days when trade union stalwarts finally made it to the Labour benches after a lifetime on the shopfloor.
Gone too, are the pinstriped Tory knights of the shires and eminent Queens Counsel, who saw politics as the highest form of public service.
In their place, right across the political spectrum, has come a new elite of young, full-time careerists who bring to the job the cynical, exploitative attitude of managers on the make.
They don’t just want to run the country (which is bad enough), they want to be rewarded in a manner that fits their grandiose self importance.
I think that’s true.The increasing dominance, even at the highest levels, of superannuated student politicians like Phil Woolas or Jim Murphy is a sign that things have changed, and not for the better. Events in Erith, where the New Labour apparat is trying to saddle a working-class constituency with the 22-year-old daughter of Lord Philip Gould, are just an extreme example. And much the same could be said of their Tory oppos. Just because you’ve been to Eton doesn’t make you George Orwell, or even Douglas Hurd.
Then there’s the remuneration issue. Your backbench MP has a basic salary of £64,000, which puts him in the top 7% of earners. Unless your MP is Sir Malcolm Rifkind in Kensington and Chelsea, this will be considerably more than his average constituent. On the other hand, it doesn’t compare all that well with MPs’ peers who went into law, medicine or the City rather than politics. I’m sceptical of the idea that most MPs could earn much more in the private sector – many of them don’t really have any marketable skills – but there’s no doubt that they have fallen behind those who they see as comparators.
What’s also come into play is that, due to the odium surrounding MPs’ tradition of voting themselves an annual pay rise, the optics have demanded some restraint on headline pay. But the expenses system, which we can now see has been very lightly policed, can effectively become an additional income stream. It’s tempting, as long as you can get away with it. Once the details come out, though, it just looks dishonest.
I don’t think anybody disputes that there has to be some allowances system. The second home allowance was introduced in the 1970s to end the situation where MPs from Manchester or Glasgow had to sleep in their offices. I don’t think the public would begrudge something towards rents, utility bills or council tax. But when someone like Geoff Hoon can use the allowances system to build up a sizeable property empire, you know the spirit of the system isn’t being adhered to even if it’s technically within the rules.
It is about time Westminster stopped being so precious about self-regulation and brought in proper audit checks, such as you have for other public bodies. And such is the anger that that just might happen.
By the way, Stephen Fry’s comment that this is all a fuss over nothing tells us more about Stephen Fry’s bank balance than anything else. But the old humbug detector has been going into overdrive lately. It’s been instructive to see TV anchors or newspaper columnists (one thinks of Richard Littlejohn spewing bile from his gated community in Florida) getting on their high horse when they take home a multiple of an MP’s salary. Not to mention the press’s notorious expenses culture, something the Lobby isn’t very anxious to have investigated.
But, to end on a heartwarming note, there’s always one man you can rely on to defend our political class’s indefensible actions. Yes, it’s David Aaronovitch, whose take on events is that the public is suffering from some sort of mass psychosis causing them to somehow form the belief that the government is dishonest. By the way, Aaro has a new book out on conspiracy theories, wherein he derides a gullible public for being taken in by a systematic scepticism towards power. One might object that Aaro systematically gives those in power the benefit of the doubt, but then that’s what he’s there for.