Tuesday, 19 May 2009

SCANDAL: The Expenses Crisis and UK Politics

Having been largely absent from the blog for a little while, I sort of feel guilty about neglecting my hoards of readers (well... stream. Trickle.l... Well... Christine, mainly. Sorry Christine...) so thought I'd try to make it up to you with thoughts on a few different issues.

First, obviously, I couldn't possibly ignore the current tidal wave sweeping British politics - the scandal over MP's expenses. For my American readers, basically what has happened here is that widespread abuse has been discovered in which a large number of MPs from all three major parties have been claiming taxpayer money for a range of absurd items (yes, as you may have heard, one Conservative MP claimed money for the cleaning of his moat), some have been caught claiming money for mortages long since repaid, and others have been caught out doing up one property at the taxpayer expense and switching to claim the other as their scond residence and refurbishing that on our dime as well.

Today the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, was forced to resign after weeks of controversy stemming from his apparent failure to in any way control the expenses management before the scandal broke (it falls under his purview) or to competently cope with it once it did.

But the Speaker is, frankly, the least of our problems here. The sentiment in the country is volatile - there has already been a lot of discontent here with a Labour government that generally feels past its sell-by date. This was already massively compounded with anger over the economic situation (and Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer for near two decades under Tony Blair, so he can't escape responsibility). Now all this has been compounded by a strain of understandable populist outrage.

What bothers me most here is how sorely I have personally been made to look a fool. After all, I have been standing up for the integrity of politicians with cab drivers and coffee-house servers for years. Whenever (as happens frequently) there is grumbling about politicians who are supposedly only doing it for the money or for their egos, I have pointed out tirelessly that:

1) Most politicians could easily make more money in business.
2) The reason they don't do that is because most politicians I know are genuinely invested with a sense of desire to do some good for their communities/ constituents/ country.
3) Yes, politicians do have massive egos, but so do most successful people. And anyway...
4) Political life can be the most ego crushing thing in the world - because part of your job is to get attacked by the public every time you speak, and quite often you fail in the most spectacular fashion (losing and election, a ministerial post, etc.) in front of everyone you have ever met.

A lot of this is still true - and although a lot of MPs appear to be guilty of nasty shenanigans, many are not - but it's not an argument that suits the public mood right now.

Nor is it especially one I feel like making. Sometimes anger is appropriate. Voters have every right to feel it.

This is a bizarre scandal in that it affects all the political parties, so although it is likely to hurt the government most deeply, it tarnishes the whole system at a exactly the moment when people were already feeling like their politics was unresponsive and unrepresentative.

The fear is that this will lead not just to a loss for Labour, but to a general downturn in voter participation and/or an uptick in the number of people supporting offensive non-mainstream parties like the BNP.

Or perhaps the moment has finally arrived for the Monster Raving Looney Party? Our political system could hardly look much more foolish than it does today.

No, I'll hold out for more and better mainstream political leadership. Might try holding my breath until I turn blue.


KathyF said...

I agree with you and sympathize with your position, since I've held the same views and tried to defend them.

The other day I was listening to Radio 4 discussing the situation. I happened to be stuck in a long queue of traffic, caused by 2/3 lanes being closed for roadworks. The situation was clearly marked, and most drivers were getting over in an orderly manner. But some, who'd already pulled in behind, decided to jump the queue and pulled out to race down past the long line of cars. Others simply ignored the signs and tried to squeeze in at the last minute.

I was struck by the irony of the situation. Most of those drivers would surely have condemned the MPs for testing the grey areas of the rules, yet when offered the same temptation, I'm guessing they'd have done the same thing. And how many people who complain about the MPs' behaviour are cheating on their own expense claims?

While we certainly need a better class of MPs, I don't imagine the current climate will result in that happening.

Paul Mindus said...

The differences in public mood here and back in the USA seem like night and day. Here, Government has lost confidence in itself, and the public lacks confidence in its leaders. There is no palpable sense of taking action, making clear how Government is controlling or improving the economy in ways that people can understand. If they are doing something right, we don't know about it. Maybe that is a media issue, too, because the wolf pack is tearing Government apart.
In contract, Barack Obama brings composure and hope to a similar set of circumstances. His administration largely acknowledges the difficulties it faces, sets the expectations in more reasonable terms, stays in composure mode without drifting to extremes. The public wants things to change -- it believes some kind of transformation is possible -- and there still appears to be trust in the Government's leadership.
How Labour squandered its trust and responsibilities is an object lesson for Barack Obama and the American people. As for the parliamentary scandal, I share your dire disappointment with the behaviour of so many politicians, but I am also fearful of the wolf pack journalism that operates on several agendas and with some genuine impact on the already fragile political structure.
What I also fear is the impact on
4th June local and European parliamentary elections, particularly if a substantial number of alienated British voters choose to support the British Nationalist Party and open the public coffers that will give the BNP extremists hard political currency in this volatile time.
I fear the public will turn its back on the major parties and Britain will wake up with a loud, obnoxious, divisive and venal political voice that attacks the freedom and openness of British society.