Tuesday, May 19, 2009

MPs expenses: Where your host makes an abrupt about-turn and apolgises to former adversaries

OK. I'm trying to write this without it sounding like one of those Private Eye retractions, but it's a bit difficult: But here goes:

A few months ago, I described the MySociety campaign to force MPs to disclose their expenses as stupid and anti-democratic. And while this description could be read as praise if you squint, I don't think that this is how it was taken.

An apology is in order. Reading it back over the events of the last few weeks, it's very hard to maintain the position that I did then. As it happens, there probably isn't a substantial point from that post that I'd withdraw - I do still think that we have one of the least corrupt political cultures that has been found at any point in history, or for that matter, anywhere in the modern world.

When I read the'perceptions of corruption' index and see that the UK is 16th, I still think that even this partly reflects our notoriously hysterical and dishonest newspapers.

I do think that this exercise has played into their agenda and that the end-result will not necessarily be a more effective democracy (I'd still say that there is a real danger that things could get considerably worse as a result of these revelations) - that the result of this 'clean hands' investigation may be a form of corruption that is simply more acceptable to our odious Fourth Estate.

I also still share Shuggy's view that the 'it's our money' argument doesn't always hold water either. People who moan about MPs spending our money often don't really want MPs to run things in the first place. 

But, all of that said, these revelations have foregrounded something that I wasn't factoring in, or that I underestimated: The petty greed, the chiselling little fiddles, in some cases, the manipulative way that standards have been applied to MPs but not to the people that MPs legislate about. When I worked in politics over a decade ago, you heard rumours, and I put them down to political backbiting. It seems that the worst suspicions about the squalid little fiddles that people said MPs were up to were often actually true. 

The scale, and the sordid crafty behaviour of a minority (and so far, you wouldn't believe it, but it is still a minority) of MPs - particularly their 'the rules said it was OK, so I did it' excuses are just stomach-turning.

That the Fees Office connived in this doesn't excuse MPs - it makes it worse. Even the MPs that didn't take the largesse of offer were prepared to accept a culture that was dishing out freebies. This week has confirmed that almost the entire professional political class live on a different planet to the rest of us, and that they really need to be brought to account in a way that they haven't been for a long time.

So there you have it. I was wrong about a lot of this. And I think that there is the potential to turn recent events into something positive.

But I still worry that the end result may not be to increase public faith in democracy, and it worries me that the person who moved the no-confidence motion - Douglas Carswell MP - has an utterly odious anti-Parliamentary Direct Democracy agenda, and that one of the people mooted to replace Gorbals Mick is the arch-libertarian Richard Shepherd MP.

People who hate elected government are loving this. But I'm now prepared to concede that the legitimacy of democracy would continue to have eroded until this particular pill was swallowed.

The big question, then, is what can we do reinvigorate politics? To make sure that MPs aren't these freaks that live in a world where you just decide to buy a fucking big TV system because the rules don't expressly tell you not to.

There really are some utter wankers in Parliament, and I hope that they end up with dramatically curtailed careers as a result of this.


Niall Smith said...

Great stuff

Perhaps I'm feeling too charitable but what I like most about this post is the nice balance between apology and what i suppose i can only term righteous indignation.

Without wishing to sound totally sycophantic, i also enjoyed the original post.

You can't be right all the time.

Paulie said...

That only leaves me to congratulate you on the well-judged tone of your blog commenting Niall ;-)

Mike said...

Looks like you're the propaganda victim now. You were right the first time, and the press stories about bathplugs and pay-per-view films confirmed that. Further, as I recall, the complainers believed that MPs had a £150k wining & dining expense account, instead of paying staff with the money.

Only a handful of MPs have been fraudulent and, posssibly, the majority have not made any money out of the expenses. My local MP appears to be clean.

With hindsight, the expenses system should have been reformed last year (when the reforms were rejected).

Steve Hayes said...

I think the Fourth Estate is ousting the other three, if it hasn't done so already.

Oh and i nicked the Zimbabwe trade union thingy from your blog. Good stuff.