The Daily Telegraph and their informant have certainly opened a veritable can of worms! Their publication day after day of new revelations of MPs’ expense claims has certainly boosted their sales, despite the widespread reporting of every detail in other outlets. But if they also have a political agenda, this must be a dangerous game, both for the paper’s chosen champions, David Cameron’s Tories, and for the rest of us. The likely public response to the Telegraph’s uncovering of the somewhat murky operations of the Commons Fees Office is ‘a plague on all their houses’. This will probably encompass all the prominent parties in Westminster: Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Many will presumably opt not to vote in the Euro elections on 4th June and perhaps in the General Election which must come within the next 12 months. Some may be persuaded to vote for candidates they would not otherwise have voted for. If they are going to do so let us hope they are clear on exactly the issues at stake.
The Telegraph’s tactic has been to cherry-pick the most dubious-sounding claims, for items that were in no way necessary for MPs to fulfil their representative functions or which took advantage of the opportunity to profit from their poorly-policed right to establish an additional household. These claims were then linked to others dubious in certain lights and to claims that only become possibly dubious if viewed in the light of the suspicion engendered by the most dubious. In this way a spurious moral crusade takes shape against an apparently uniquely self-serving money-grabbing section of society in whom we have supposedly uniquely placed our trust. This is all nonsense. Are MPs worse human beings than journalists who used to rack up their expenses when they could, as the more honest of them are only too ready to admit? Are they worse than the banking bosses and their millions of pounds of payoffs and pensions for massive failure? No, they are human beings like the rest of us: malleable, open to temptation and always open to taking the easy option, especially when it comes to maintaining our lifestyle. The position a person holds is never a guarantee of their personal probity, as the scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church attests. And if MPs were any better or worse that the rest of us, who is to blame? We voted for them, after all! The journalists, bankers and priests are largely self-selecting, in contrast.
We should be careful too about the claim that MPs should be particularly vilified because their expenses come from ‘our’ money. This is too convenient a smokescreen across the dealings of the corporate sector. The money for journalists’ boozy expense-account lunches, or bankers’ pensions may nominally come from private organisations, but the revenue streams of these organisations can quickly be traced back to the wallets of individual citizens.
We are naïve in the extreme if we expect those presented to us for election by the main political parties to be untainted by personal failings. Even if we wanted to be represented by saints, the very process of becoming prominent enough within the structure of such an organisation demands a certain willingness to put personal ambition up there with what is frequently a genuine desire to serve. The truth then, is that effective politicians will always have two aspects to their character: the desire to serve themselves and their careers and the desire to serve others. In any decision they make these two aspects are fighting with each other. If we (and they) could always tell which was the right decision on the latter criterion, then we could easily monitor our politicians. But few decisions appear black and white at the time they are made, and so there is always a steady accumulation of decisions made with the self-seeking side as the final arbiter. Consider it honestly. If there is no clear right or wrong, won’t we all decide in our own interest? The consequence is that political power itself leads to advantage and to its concentration. The longer political power is held in the hands of particular individuals or groups the more they will accumulate, and the more painful it becomes to relinquish it and the advantage that goes with it. The truth is that the longer power is held the more often the self-service wins out over service to the other. I think the career of Gordon Brown is a sad testament to this truth. The radical socialist student wishing to see a transfer of power and wealth to the working people of Scotland has become obsessed with his own personal standing within his party and that party’s electoral standing within the ranks of middle-class swing-voters.
If the effect of the Daily Telegraph’s crusade leads to the election of a swathe of BNP MPs, few of whose criminal records will be for expense-fiddling, its agenda may not be entirely unfulfilled, but I think the rest of us should draw the conclusion that concentrating any sort of power, whether it be the power to direct bank-lending, to decide banker’s pensions or MPs’ expenses is dangerous. This concentration is self-perpetuating both in its distribution and over time. This means that our institutions must be specifically set up to counteract this tendency. They must distribute power as widely as possible, both spatially and temporally. My proposals to achieve this would, among other things, be true proportional representation for the House of Commons, a minimum of two terms for MPs (thus eliminating politics as a career for the otherwise unqualified or experienced), and a virtual revising chamber chosen by random selection. To see an expanded version of these arguments and those for more economic democracy have a look at my paper written for a seminar at No 10 Downing Street.