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.
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.