Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is there a sense of proportion in the house?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

All right: I'm going to have one last shot at it, and then I promise faithfully I will stop and give you my new recipe for flatbread.

I freely put my hands up. When I said I was not sure how angry the phlegmatic British public was about the expenses row, I was being too optimistic. The public is now officially Angry. Although I still wonder at the amount of time it has taken for them to get furious, and how much of that fury has been stoked by raging, unremitting newspaper headlines. Many of the stories in the papers are skewed to put the very worst possible spin on some fairly ordinary claims, and all the pundits have been using incendiary language from the start. Peter Hitchens did a particularly hilarious piece on This Week on Thursday where he sat in a rather enchanting greasy spoon and claimed that the ordinary people, like those eating breakfast around him, were absolutely livid at the venal shenanigans of their elected representatives: ‘everyone is angry’ he said, angrily. The diners around him continued to eat their beans and chips and sausages with calm decorum; I’ve never seen a collection of people look less cross.

Still, the letters pages, call-in shows and the set of Question Time are exploding with ire. One pensioner told one newspaper reporter that she would not be surprised if people got guns and started shooting MPs. The always rational Diane Abbott said that the public wanted to see MPs hanging from lampposts. The exceptionally tired old trope of ‘they are all the same’ is being repeated so frequently that I expect soon to see it etched in stone above the Members’ entrance of the House.

Despite everything, I still think the anger is out of all proportion. The system of allowances is antiquated and wrong, and should be fixed. The fees office is clearly run by very strange people indeed. Some of our parliamentarians have behaved as fools or knaves. All this is true and should not be glossed over and excused. But I still say it is not the most scandalous scandal in the history of scandals.

Let us look at this on a purely financial level. A huge part of the anger derives from the notion that MPs are living high on the hog at public expense; people talk of wanting their money back for the lav seats and moat cleaners and housekeepers. It’s our money, the outraged citizenry is saying, and we want it returned with interest. Well, taking into account salary, expenses, allowances, and staff wages, the cost of each MP to every taxpayer in the UK averages out at around £4 per year. Obviously, some people pay more tax than others, so Stephen Fry probably pays about a tenner for his MP, while someone on the minimum wage pays about 40p. But for the sake of argument, let’s take the £4 figure.

Here is what the latest round of spending on Afghanistan cost each taxpayer: £1400. I should remind you that in Afghanistan the Taliban is resurgent, the government is properly corrupt (they would shriek at the idea of measly pipe under a measly tennis court), girls have acid thrown in their face for daring to go to school, the poppy is flourishing, and our brave boys are bogged down in Helmand Province. If you want to get really angry about something that deserves proper incandescent fury, read James Fergusson’s brilliant book A Million Bullets and you will see what I am talking about.

Here is what the the financial crisis and the bailout of the banks will cost each taxpayer, according to the International Monetary Fund: £5,000. So it would take your MP a thousand years to charge you as much. Bear in mind that the scale of the disaster could easily have been avoided if the bankers had not be stupid enough to bet the farm on complicated financial instruments that they themselves often did not understand, if the regulatory agencies had actually done their job, and if someone, somewhere, had listened to Paul Krugman.
Here is what the airline industry costs every taxpayer in subsidises: £300. Now you may love the airline industry. I am sure that it never indulges in Spanish practices or dodgy expenses. It might be doing more than its bit to promote pollution, but you know, people must go on holiday. But do you really think that is a good use of your hard-earned tax pound?

I could go on, but I know you will lose the will to live. My point is that surely our collective rage should be 350 times higher in the case of Afghanistan and a thousand times higher in the case of the bank bailouts. If I were being really naughty, I might even point out that four quid a year for an MP is quite good value. You cannot even buy a packet of fags for four quid. For this, your member of parliament will sit on select committees, take part in debates, vote on issues of the day, answer hundreds of letters, participate, to a greater or lesser degree, in the formulation of policy, throw surgeries where concerned voters may come with their problems, sometimes mount campaigns on behalf of their constituents, open flower shows, and attend various dinners and events and speaking engagements (which might sound feckless and frivolous and quite fun, but often involves earnest conversation with not entirely fascinating people). They must be prepared to keep no detail of their private life private, be polite at all times, even when in the presence of nutters or crashing bores, and be pilloried in the press. Some of them absolutely deserve to be pilloried in the press, and put in the stocks too, but the blameless must expect this treatment along with the culpable.

On top of all this, they must accept that they will be generally regarded as incompetent at best and crooked at worst. The scale of the recent outcry demonstrates vividly that the expenses scandal only confirmed what most people already believed. All surveys show that Members of Parliament have occupied the same subterranean position in public esteem for years. In 2006, when there was no scandal, they ranked below business leaders and only just above journalists in the three least trusted professions. There is no need for violins; they are grown-ups and choose to go into politics. They must know that a thick skin is part of the job requirement. I am not saying that we should not get angry with MPs; of course we should. That is our right, even our civic duty, as concerned citizens. I feel very strongly about this: don’t just carp on the sidelines, get involved – write a letter, sign a petition, start a blog. There is an idiot strain of non-idea abroad that says we should punish the lot of them by not voting. Peter Hitchens told us solemnly on Thursday that ‘the right to vote is just as precious as the right not to vote’. Some sententious moron on The World Tonight said it was this kind of scandal that led to apathy amongst the electorate; then stated smugly: ‘that is why I have not voted since 1974’. I almost started throwing things. If you do not participate, I think you forfeit your right to bitch, but I am a bit hardline like that. I get all sentimental about the people who died for the right to vote, the women who had to fight and scratch and chain themselves to railings so they might mark their ballots.

So I do not shrug my shoulders and say it does not matter. It does matter, but other things matter much, much more. The electorate has an absolute right to hold the political class to its promises. It is not that fury should not be hurled, but that it should be hurled at the right target. Because when the whole thing turns into a blind witch-hunt, not only is nothing achieved, but the really terrifying scandals go unanswered.


  1. You are the only person on this blooming sceptred isle that's talking any sense about this whole cursed issue. Thank God for you; you make me remember that it's the world that's gone mad, not me. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've written.

  2. Mrs T - you are so lovely. I feel as if I am out on a very fragile limb which is about to crash to the ground. It's very strange finding that one is going entirely against all received opinion. Only Matthew Parris and the heavenly Steve Richards of the Independent have even mentioned the word perspective.

    I remember having the exact same feeling when The Play Wot I Wrote was the biggest smash hit in the West End a few years ago. I went with another writer friend and his girlfriend and the three of us sat stony-faced as the rest of the theatre ROCKED with laughter about us. I have never in my life sat in the middle of so much hilarity. I suddenly saw the real meaning of 'rocking with laughter'; it felt like being on a ship. And for me, the play was like having pins stuck in the eyes. So the three of us had to conclude that either the entire public had gone cray, including all the critics, or we had. Still can't really tell which one it was.

    Anyway, thank heavens for you, so I know I'm not entirely alone. xx


  3. Oh no, you're most certainly not alone. I posted this one on Twitter the other day for the exact same reasons. Don't have the time and surplus energy to write anything myself these days, so just as well he and you write it so eloquently and to-the-point.
    (sorry for the looong URL, strange things happened when I tried to turn it into tinyURL and post it here)

    Once again we must call in your much appreciated Perspective Police and call people's attention to real problems.
    A good friend of mine used to be an MP in Denmark. She left all her finances with a trusted accountant and told him that she didn't ever want to hear about it, as long as he just made sure everything was above board and filed on time, she'd pay his bills and be happy. Why can't they just all do that?

    That some of them are so dumb they think they might get away with it worries me more than the actual spending...

    Keep up your great postings. You're never shallow - I love that it's food one day, funny observations the next and profound politics and philosophy the third. It's exactly how I like it. If we're profound all the time we'll end up taking ourselves much too seriously and that would be very boring, wouldn't it?

  4. Nene - always so lovely to get a comment from you.I am so pleased you like the composition of the blog. I think light and shade very important, and have to guard against getting too bogged down in one subject. My great danger is that I have a tendency to get up on my hobby horse and ride off in all directions like a Daisy Ashford heroine. I think the food part very important, don't you? It always cheers me up when the news is all bad. And brings us all back to earth in some way.

    Thank you for being so kind. xx

  5. Moat cleaning, tennis court repairs and accountants fees aside there should indeed be a system which allows ordinary people to enter politics. Rid the system of such a thing and we will return to the days of just the landed gentry filling the halls of Westminster. That cannot be allowed to happen. Tighten up the procedure by all means (I mean, who needs a 2 grand tv for their home anyway?) but the ordinary man should not be disuaded from entering politics because he/she can't afford it.
    For disaffected Labour supporters there is somewhere else to let them know how you feel. Go to to leave a message for No10.


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