MPs’ expenses: what price democracy?

When politicians’ claims for the cost of a bath plug can knock the recession out of the headlines, politics is in danger of going down the gurgler.

So here we are, in the midst of an historic economic and political crisis (notwithstanding the latest hype about how a slowdown in the rate of decline somehow constitutes a ‘recovery’). And what are the big issues dominating public debate in the UK? Bath plugs, biscuits, dog food, moat- and swimming pool-cleaning, IKEA kitchens and other items that members of parliament have claimed for under the discredited expenses system.

This circus might be funny if it weren’t so depressing. When New Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith recently got into trouble over an expenses claim for the £10 rental of two ‘adult’ films at her home, I asked how low British politics could go. This week, it seems it can sink as low as a row over a claim for a five-pence carrier bag. To update my old friend Karl Marx, it appears that history now repeats itself not twice but three times: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, the third as dog food.

Forget expenses for a moment. There is no shortage of big sticks with which to beat British politicians, no lack of real issues on which to drive them from office, from what they have done to our economy, liberties and society to what they have not done about the crisis. So why has the attack on them been reduced to matters of home economics? A government that launched three unsupportable wars within four years - Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq - should surely be judged on something more than how much its members claimed in gardening expenses.

Yet it is not enough just to object that we should talk about something else. A closer look at the obsession with MPs’ expenses is revealing about the bigger problems of politics today.

Let’s be honest, these dubious claims are mostly pretty small-scale stuff.  Expense account stretching and fiddling is common in every profession. No British MP has got stinking rich on the back of it. And should it really be seen as political corruption? That generally means taking money in return for political favours, altering your opinions and votes in exchange for cash. Which government policy has been influenced by MPs wheedling expenses out of Westminster?

Indeed what this furore demonstrates is that the notion of a political scandal has itself been cheapened. In the past, a major scandal - like the Profumo affair in 1963 - would always centre on important issues such as national security behind the gossip about sex and money. Now scandals seem to begin and end with petty questions about personal behaviour - like just about everything else in politics.

So why has the expenses ‘scandal’ become big enough to blow the recession out of the headlines? Partly it has become the latest focus for infighting within the Westminster Village, between the self-obsessed political class and the self-righteous media. See, for example, this exchange between a pompous Labour Lord and a pious BBC news presenter, who is forced to admit that she is paid considerably more than MPs from the public purse, but claims moral superiority because she pays for her own phone calls.

Yet the expenses issue has also touched a nerve with the wider public. It seems to have become a symbol of hostility to a political class that many feel occupies a different world from the rest of us. Hence the opinion polls showing that both New Labour and the Conservatives have lost support as a result, and that 80-odd per cent of voters now feel all the big parties are as bad as each other. The caricature of politicians lecturing people about belt-tightening whilst getting the tax-payer to fund their own expanding waistlines is a powerful image in the public imagination. Television pictures, such as those of cabinet minister Hazel Blears running away from journalists’ questions about her expenses, looking more like some dodgy builder on a consumer rights’ show, have done little to alter that perception. The popular response is ‘Get rid of them all!’

I might generally have some sympathy with that, as a supporter of none of the mainstream parties. But there can be little positive pay-off from crusading against politicians on the expenses issue. Instead there will be a damaging price to pay for politics and democracy if we allow this crap to become the stuff of political life.

We live in an age where the great ‘isms’ of politics past, whether capitalism or socialism, have largely been replaced by negative and passive ‘isms’ such as cynicism, fatalism and miserabilism. These trends are powerfully strengthened by the obsession with the expenses scandal, which reinforces public antipathy not only to individual MPs, but to the very idea of politics being worthwhile. The common view that the answer is more unaccountable bureaucrats and officials to police elected representatives reflects the widespread disdain for politics today. The fact that parliament now supports that view reflects the collapse of its own self-image.

The real problem is not what politicians get up to in Westminster offices and on expenses forms. It is what they do outside, the absence of politics with a capital P in wider society. Politicians today appear to stand for nothing of principle, to offer little in the way of leadership or to do anything that can improve people’s lives or show them a vision of a better future worth fighting for. This is what makes them so susceptible to the accusation that they must only be in it for the money.

No, MPs today are not gangsters. But they are not great leaders either. Many of them are pretty useless jobsworths. Statesmen of standing have survived far more dangerous scandals because people still believed in them and what they stood for. By contrast, the authority of today’s politicians can be destroyed by a scandal over the petty cash, because in the absence of any great cause or fight for the Good Society, many can see them only as parasites and placemen.

It is, of course, hard to feel much sympathy for the MPs in the firing line - and not because they really are crooks or swindlers. It was New Labour that turned sleaze and scandal into the central issue in politics, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown defeated the last Tory government in 1997 in a campaign that seemed to focus more on ministers’ tax returns than their policies. Ever since, the parties have vied to show that they are cleaner than their sleazy opponents. They can hardly complain if many now seek to judge them by studying their ridiculous or ‘outrageous’ expense returns rather than their dull manifestos. 

At every stage of this ‘scandal’, the reaction from the political class has somehow managed to make matters worse - first trying to use the courts to block publication of the expenses details, then claiming that MPs had done nothing wrong, then falling over themselves to apologise for doing it. The unattractive combination of the sort of bitter victim mentality expressed publicly by the Speaker of the House of Commons yesterday (and privately by many MPs) with the pseudo-grovelling and self-flagellation by party leaders makes it look as if Westminster itself has lost any sense of its own wider political purpose or moral anchor.

It is a sure sign that the parties have reached rock bottom when they all start talking about the danger that the expenses scandal might win more votes for the far-right in the Euro elections. Just about the only way that our leaders can hope to look worthy today is by striking exaggerated poses against the BNP, even in a row about who pays for their gardeners, cleaners and second homes.

No doubt it is necessary to change the system of MPs’ expenses. But they should still be properly paid. It is important to remember that the call for MPs to be paid for the first time was a central demand of the movement for democratic reform in Britain in the nineteenth century, as part of the campaign to break the stranglehold of the wealthy propertied classes on power. That money was seen as a means to an end, which would allow good men (good women came later) to enter parliament and attempt to change society for the better. In our de-politicised times, by contrast, many can see MPs salaries and expenses only as an end in itself. Even the reform of the expenses system is proposed simply as good housekeeping, to tidy Westminster up rather in the same way that Mr Brown’s state-financed cleaner tidied his flat.

There are some rather bigger and more important questions behind the current shenanigans: questions such as what should politics be for, what should leaders do, why democracy is worth protecting. But these are not even being asked amidst the furore over who claimed how much for which item.

In the end, I really cannot get excited enough to give the price of a bath plug about MPs’ expenses. I am far more worried about the way that all sides seem intent on watching political life go down the gurgler.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked Mick Hume called for some adult debate in light of the Jacqui Smith porn film furore. He also argued that scandal dominates debate while governments achieve nothing, and despaired that the donations scandal was news at all. Tim Black looked at the Corfu funding allegations. Matthias Heitmann suggested the Paul Wolfowitz affair reveals how fear of corruption undermines political life. James Heartfield said that we should get rid of codes of conduct not sack ministers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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