House of ill repute

Palace_of_Westminster_Westminster_Hall_south

The late Brian Clough’s brief sojourn at Leeds United has gone down in footballing folklore for two reasons. One is Cloughie’s magnetic personality, which positively lends itself to the Liberty Valance treatment. The other is that, back in the 1970s, a team revolting against their manager and forcing him out was unheard of. It isn’t unheard of now, and perhaps in thirty years’ time someone will write a novel about Big Sam’s time at Newcastle.

It’s a less deferential culture now, of course, but economics feed into it too. Thanks not least to Jimmy Hill overturning the maximum wage for professional footballers in 1961, you often have a situation in the top flight where a good half of the squad are earning more than the manager – in one or two cases considerably more – and on such silly money that financial penalties don’t bother them. So it’s difficult to crack the whip, unless you have an Alex Ferguson who can weld together a disciplined team through sheer force of personality. (Though Ronaldo is still a lazy, disloyal shit, demonstrating that even Fergie’s powers have their limits.)

But what strikes me is that, at least if the balloons ringing TalkSport are anything to go by, huge numbers of fans seem eager to buy into the silly-money culture for the sake of instant gratification, what was known as “living the dream” when Leeds bankrupted themselves for the sake of Ridsdale’s vaulting ambition. In this context, Arsène Wenger’s approach of bringing through talent from the youth team while being cautious in the transfer market’s bubble economy strikes me as sensible, if you’re willing to think in the long term. But every summer you get the more gormless Arsenal fans kicking up and demanding Wenger splash out £80 million signing some galacticos. For even more of this nonsense, you can look at Formula One, where the money is even sillier than the Premier League. For some considerable time, Max Mosley has been making a strong case for imposing financial restraint before the sport goes bust. But it’s not very often anyone on the phone-ins says, “You know, Max has a point worth thinking over.” No, it’s the “Max Must Go” brigade who make all the noise.

I think the explanation of all this is that, while the Ron Manager spirit lives on in the more impecunious areas of sport, at a certain level you enter the entertainment industry. Case in point, women’s tennis, where commercial endorsements mean that the players with the most sex appeal (think of Anna Kournikova’s bra adverts) can earn a good deal more than more talented but less marketable players. And, once you cast things in showbiz terms… well, we don’t really begrudge entertainers much.

Anyway, on the principle that politics is showbiz for ugly people, this brings me back to the Westminster expenses scandal. One thing that amused me was the confrontation on News 24 between George Foulkes and Carrie Gracie. Let me say at the start that I like Carrie Gracie, and have done since she was reporting from China – she has obvious intelligence and journalistic ability, and while there are plenty of people on News 24, of both sexes, whose main function is to look pretty while reading an autocue, she’s not one of them. And I have long had an intense dislike for George Foulkes, a man who has never seen an imperialist war he didn’t like, and who might be described as Denis MacShane minus the wit, charm or sophistication. But Foulkes did have a point. I was taken aback to hear that Carrie’s salary was £92,000, which is nearly half as much again as a backbench MP. (But not as much as her male co-anchor, I notice.) It goes to show, I suppose, that while there are plenty of underpaid and overworked journalists about, at the higher level – news anchoring, say, or the op-ed pages of the papers – we are entering the world of news as showbiz, where Chris Morris is as good a critical guide as Nick Davies.

And at the top end of earners, we really are in showbiz territory. Richard Littlejohnson, who’s been fulminating in the Daily Mail about MPs’ extravagance, has a salary roughly equivalent to a dozen MPs put together. Jeremy Paxman earns even more. You could say that, in terms of his contribution to the body politic, Paxo is easily worth a dozen MPs, but it’s a little incongruous when he’s supposed to be holding them to account about their expenditure. You may as well have Jonathan Ross or Katie Price presenting Newsnight. And that’s without even getting into Fleet Street’s slush fund culture. I wouldn’t be sorry if the investigation into MPs was extended into other areas of society.

But there are good reasons for the intensity of the anger that we saw demonstrated on last week’s Question Time. Firstly, it’s our money. Secondly, while the old system of MPs voting themselves generous pay rises every year led to a few days’ bad headlines, the milking of the expenses system as a means of bridging the gap between what they think they’re worth and what the public think they’re worth, has led to a much fiercer reaction, thanks to the attendant dishonesty, which in many cases looks very much like obtaining money under false pretences. There’s the culture of putting everything on the tab – in terms of the rules, Jacqui Smith’s bath plug is one of the more justifiable claims, but claiming 88p back from the taxpayer for something she could pay for out of her loose change just looks incredibly tacky. And there’s what the claims have revealed about MPs’ lifestyles, fanning the impression that they belong to a metropolitan elite remote from the concerns of their constituents.

While I’m not personally theological about the left’s historic demand for an MP on a workers’ wage, this sort of thing demonstrates why it can be a very good idea – it’s one reason why the late Terry Fields was such a good constituency MP, because he was still living the kind of lifestyle that he had as a firefighter. At the very least, public representatives should not live lives vastly removed from those of their constituents. What might be the best way forward in the interim is to simply link MPs’ pay to that of, say, division heads in the Civil Service, which would take their salaries out of their own hands, and to have a fairly restrictive expenses regime subject to regular audit by HMRC.

And this whole saga does at least demonstrate the virtues of openness. On one level, it’s yet another example of New Labour’s actions coming back to bite them in the arse. They bring in these measures, like the Freedom of Information Act or the Human Rights Act or the Sexual Orientation Regulations – which may be completely defensible in their own right – as cheap progressive-looking measures to keep their luvvie element happy, and then find themselves caught in the unintended consequences. But these disclosures are very much a Good Thing. The odium makes some sort of reform inevitable, although I am less than impressed by El Gordo’s plan to outsource parliamentary administration to yet another unelected quango. The exposure of financial scandals – which is a rare enough thing, remember that the scandals of the Major government were nearly all about shagging – the mass nature of the exposure weakens the whipping system, as all this information coming into the public domain means it’ll be harder in future for the whips to blackmail MPs into voting the right way. And it has also shaken up the lobby system, where the symbiosis of journos and politicos had become so cosy that some correspondents had become little more than gossip columnists. The Torygraph‘s declaration of war on the entire political class can’t be sustained in the long term, but it makes it more difficult to go back to the old backslapping ways.

Parenthetically, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the hapless Speaker Martin on his being hounded out of office, even though in the end he had to go. A lot of this is due to the background of years of personal attacks by people who found it either hilarious or outrageous that a working-class Scottish Catholic could hold such a high position. (Step forward Quentin Letts, who finds it impossible to mention Martin without going into a tedious “See you, Jimmy” routine – that’s when he isn’t sniggering at Jacqui Smith’s tits.) But to return to the proximate cause, we’re dealing here with the outworkings of decades of corruption – it’s been made known that the sainted Betty Boothroyd is livid, but you had the same set-up under Betty’s speakership and she didn’t exactly bust a gut to change things. Martin didn’t force MPs to fiddle their expenses, still less did he fill in their claim forms for them. In resisting transparency, he’ s only been reflecting the will of the House. And let’s have some light shed on the House of Commons Commission, a committee chaired by the Speaker, yes, but stuffed full of grandees from the Labour, Tory and Liberal parties, and which has been one of the most powerful pillars of the status quo. But yeah, the captain had to take a fall for the team. Greater love hath no man, than he lay down his sinecure for those of his friends.

And you can see a sort of rough justice in action all round. It is entirely correct that the most egregious offenders are seeing their careers go up in smoke. In particular, Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears look like dead women walking, which gives me no end of satisfaction. Not to mention Shahid Malik, who’s always reminded me of a minor character from Minder and whose fall from grace surprises me not in the least. It would be nice to see this followed up by a mass round of deselections, or if all else fails a raft of anti-sleaze independent candidates. On the other hand, there are those who have been honest and frugal with taxpayers’ money – people like Alan Johnson, Vince Cable, Martin Salter, Theresa May or the incomparable John Mann – who deserve to come out with their reputations enhanced. Whether or not you agree with them politically, they have demonstrated themselves on the personal level to be decent public representatives who aren’t in it to line their pockets. And if there is a political dividing line, it is that the Labour left, Harry Cohen notwithstanding, have tended to come out better than the NuLabour apparatchiks, while proper old-fashioned Conservatives seem to be doing better on average than the Cameroons. That is, people for whom politics is about ideas and public service, not about “governance” and PR.

Speaking of PR men, it’s the little juxtapositions that are so telling. Like socialist Luton MP Kelvin Hopkins, who actually commutes to Westminster while his New Labour neighbour Margaret Moran has been claiming expenses on her third home, a hundred miles away. Well done that man. And Geoffrey Robinson has gone up in my estimation because, although he’s a very wealthy man who owns multiple properties, he won’t claim expenses on any of them on the very reasonable grounds that he can afford to pay his own way. Compare that to the Tory leader, who’s been getting great headlines by using his PR training to strike “decisive” poses. David and Samantha Cameron are estimated to have a joint worth in the region of £30 million, which rather begs the question of why he needs a mortgage at all, let alone charging twenty grand a year from the taxpayer to finance it. Or is that the point?

But this is a question the media have not asked, and I suggest that’s because the political-media class has far too much invested in Rankin’ Dave. Just as Mr Tony Blair saved the Labour Party from socialism, and is now trying to save the Catholic Church from Christianity, so it falls to young Mr Cameron to save the Conservative Party from conservatism. Therefore, Dave must be protected.

Rud eile: Although I’ve heard some grumbling in the queue at Asda about the Swish Family Robinson and their enormous expenses claims, I don’t expect this scandal to have more than a marginal effect on votes in the north of Ireland. We don’t vote on those issues, and anyway our Soviet-style economy means we don’t have the taxpayer culture that plays such a big role in Sasanach politics. But I must give an award for optimism to the News of the World, which has launched a campaign to unseat Gerry Adams over his having milked the second-home allowance. As if that was the worst thing Gerry had ever done. And, knowing the West Belfast scally mentality, it’s more likely to make Gerry even more popular.

Rud eile fós: First Hazel Blears, then Shahid Malik, and now Denis MacShane stands accused of sharp practice. The Decent Left’s poster boys and girls aren’t running a very good batting average, are they? Actually, Brian Brivati was on the Bill Turnbull Show yesterday morning, but while he did waffle a little about Bagehot, I was disappointed that he didn’t have anything specifically Decent to say. Perhaps Professor Geras can dust off some old ethics texts, and explain how being signed up to TGISOOT gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card for fiddling your expenses. Or we could have some mea culpas, like Nick Cohen did over his boosting of Hassan Butt… oh, hold on…

8 Comments

  1. decent interval said,

    May 21, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    does Blears actually count as a Decent? I can’t remember her having much to say about international issues. If you drop her, however, I can offer you Andy Burnham, who in my recollection was about the only north west MP who was prepared to canvass aggressively on the media in favour of the Iraq war, and who has needless to say been caught in the expenses net, as has his pal James Purnell (again, not sure if Purnell has had much to say on foreign matters but he seems to be made of Decent stuff).

  2. theflashingblade said,

    May 21, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    As you would expect Salter is not the saint he’s posing as, having claimed “a grand a month” between his election in 1997 and he knew the details would be made public in 2001. He boasted to people like Reading solicitor Mike Robinson about how the money from the public purse had paid for his fishing trip to India.

  3. organic cheeseboard said,

    May 22, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    you’re right that Wenger’s tranfser policy is fundamentally prudent and admirable, but the problem is that Arsenal’s financial model is linked both to an assured Champions League place, and to a lesser extent to continued success (which will feed demand for the corporate boxes that the Emirates was built for). If the ended up in the UEFA (which doesn’t look all that likely for next season, but still) then they’d be in pretty serious financial trouble. And wenger relaly should hve bought a defensive midfielder last summer, be he a galactico or otherwise.

    Fully agreed on the spectable of Decent Poster boys and girls falling like flies. I think the Decent response has been to largely ignore the biggest political story in years – TGISOOT is far more important, obviously.

  4. skidmarx said,

    May 22, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    While perhaps discussing politics might be more admirable, I’m not sure of some of the points in oc’s first paragraph. Given the prudence of the financial model, I think CL qualification is a bonus rather than a necessity. Yes there are corporate boxes,and advertising for holidays in the Zionist Entity, though what’s noticeable about the new stadium’s design is that there are no pillars bolcking the view from the cheap(er) seats, or areas stuck way away from the pitch. Hopefully when the naming contract is up it’ll be called the Arsene stadium.
    And Abou Diaby has the build to be the next Vieira, Denilson can play defensive midfield (it would be good if there was agreement to call centre backs centre backs rather than centre halves, so that term could be saved for defesive midfielders). Gabriele Marcotti made the point a while ago that the small fee that took Gilberto Silva to Greece did indicate his time had passed.

  5. Fellow Traveller said,

    May 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    The Damned Parliament has a ring to it, although it sounds a little too 17th century.

  6. Guano said,

    May 25, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Actual serving politicians take a lot of care not to directly espouse the core tenets of Decency. They leave it to their friends like Aaronovitch to say that they thought that Iraq should be invaded even if it didn’t have WMD, but serving politicians take care not to say things quite so directly. If you read closely Blair’s Sedgefield speech of March 2004 you will find that it doesn’t answer the question “why did we get involved in the invasion of Iraq?”. It suggests some hypotheses but never says “that’s the reason”. David Milliband’s recent article in the New Statesman doesn’t answer the question either. Probably politicians have at the back of their minds the fear that one day they might get taken down to the station for questioning, so they don’t want to be too open in advocating something that is against international law. They prefer fudge and spin and, if they were put on the spot, they would probably say that they really did think that Iraq had WMD, it’s a complete mystery why there weren’t any, but Saddam is dead so it doesn’t matter. This is a far from convincing argument, but is a way of avoiding saying openly that they broke international law while still saying that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

    The only statement by Purnell on this topic (that I am aware of) was a speech in which he said that the invasion of Iraq would have turned out better if there had been more time to get a UN resolution so that there was a bigger coalition. This narrative bears no relation to what actually happened in March 2003 but that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to being a leading light of New Labour, and it avoids directly advocating acts of aggression.

    (Aaronovitch’s position is interesting. In 2003 he said that he was absolutly sure that Iraq had WMD but thought that Iraq should be invaded even if it didn’t have WMD. Isn’t this a rather neat example of a “broken kettle” argument?)

  7. splinteredsunrise said,

    May 25, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Quite… except for MacShane, who’s the nearest thing we’ve got to an MP for Harry’s Place. To the point where his new book on anti-Semitism actually cites What’s Left? as a source.

  8. Guano said,

    May 25, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Another exception is Straw’s speech at a LP conference where he said that the invasion was to turn Iraq into a democracy. It’s interesting that only one person shouted “rubbish” and that no-one has ever repeated this statement.


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