Friday, April 24, 2009

Honour among thieves

When debating in the house of commons, members of the British Parliament refer to each other as 'my honourable friend, the member for...' whatever their constituency is. It's one of those quaint little traditions harking back to a simpler time. Another is the fact that you cannot call a member of parliament a liar in the house - at least not using those exact words. Do so and you will be asked by the Speaker to withdraw the allegation, or risk being expelled from the chamber. There is a long list of 'unparliamentary' language that must not be used in the house - presumably to stop the place from descending into utter farce, although in that respect it has singularly failed.

The point of these facile traditions is that members of parliament are meant to be of unimpugnable honesty. These are honourable men and women working tirelessly for the good of their constituencies and the country at large.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of parliament will see the deep irony in this, but the tradition has held down the years. MPs are beyond reproach and would never behave in a manner that might be deemed as less than saintly. And so it is that for many years it has been considered perfectly normal for MPs to write (and amend) the rules that govern how they are paid and the expenses they can claim.

There was a time when this more or less worked. Back in the day, politicians were men who had worked in some other walk of life. Politics being essentially about the creation of laws by which to govern, lawyers have been drawn to the houses of parliament like the cattle-flies they are. But there have been politicians from other backgrounds too - farmers, stockbrokers, novelists, publishers, ex-military and police to name but a few. More recently, however, and especially (although not exclusively) amongst the ranks of New Labour, we have seen a growing number of what can only be called career politicians. Some of them may have qualifications in other fields - Tony Blair trained as a lawyer after all - but usually they have never really practised. Some have nothing more wonderful than a degree - and often that in politics - before becoming a parliamentary adviser or constituency agent, on the way up to being selected for a seat.

Our current Prime Minister, Mr Dour, has been a career politician pretty much all his life, although he did manage almost three years as a political journalist. His likely successor, Mr Smiley, is even worse, having read politics at Oxford and then gone straight to work as a political adviser, with just a brief stint in television before stepping up to parliament. It's hard to imagine either of them having much idea about how to prepare company accounts, or change a car tyre in the rain.

Parliament was once a place that was populated by rogues and scoundrels with enough worldly wisdom to know how not to be caught, and enough basic decency to fall on their sword should their faults be uncovered. Now it is a den of iniquity filled with people who are so inured to the goings-on of the place that they don't even realise what they're doing is both morally and legally wrong. They call it the Westminster Village, but if that's the case then it's a medieval village, where all the villagers are inbred and rarely travel beyond the local fields and woodland.

The most recent manifestation of this communal idiocy has been the various and varied scandals surrounding expenses claims. I understand that MPs with constituencies far from London need to have a base in the city as well as their main home, and I can just about accept that we, as taxpayers and voters, should foot the bill for this. I'm not so sure that we should be paying for things like furnishings, TVs and Sky subscriptions though; MPs do get a fairly healthy salary, after all. At present, the rules seem to allow you to buy a London home and have it extravagantly furnished at the taxpayers expense. Should you have the good fortune to remain in parliament for more than ten years, you will emerge with a nice house, well furnished, that has cost you not a jot and which has no debt outstanding on it.

As perks of the job go, this is a pretty nice one. So what I can't understand is the sheer greed that takes this allowance system - already itself generous to a fault - and tries to wring every last drop out of it - and more. How stupid do you have to be to think that no-one will notice you? Well, obviously stupidity is no bar to a successful career in politics.

Gordon Brown's response to this mess is to try and bully parliament into a system much like they use in that mother of all useless institutions the European Parliament. There MEPs clock on at the start of the day, triggering an automatic payment of an attendance fee of around £180 (that's in addition to their impressive salaries), and then bugger off to do whatever they want, wherever they want. Even their flights to far-flung European destinations are paid for by us.

The Prime Minister's other 'Great Idea' is that MPs should not be allowed to hold second jobs.
Now superficially this might seem like a good thing- we're paying these idiots to represent us, so it makes sense they shouldn't be doing anything else on the side. But if we have a situation where politicians have no experience of the real world, and can't even gain some subliminal idea of that experience by sitting on the boards of real companies or teaching in real schools, or facing the enemy in battle, then what hope have they of being able to come up with real world solutions to society's problems? I'd say bugger all.

I grow increasingly weary of politics and politicians as I see the country going to hell in a handbasket and face after bloody face popping up on the TV to tell me that it's not their fault. I despair at the weasel words every time some minister is caught with their nose in the trough, or has to explain to the world that, whilst their department has managed to screw up monumentally they can in no way be held responsible. I can't remember the last time a minister at fault actually resigned - Estelle Morris doesn't count as she at least had the decency to put her hands up and say she couldn't cope. All the rest have fought tooth and nail to hold onto their privileged positions (and their grace-and-favour homes and six figure salaries) in the face of overwhelming evidence of corruption or incompetence. And nine time out of ten they're back in high office after a couple of weeks on the back benches.

I'm not sure where this rant is going, really. I think it's more a wail of despair than a suggestion of anything better. We have an unelected Prime Minister in charge of a rag-tag bunch of self-serving, chippy halfwits, a legislature that has run up more debt than all previous governments combined, and the prospect of more of the same whichever way we vote when his brownness is forced to call a general election next May (and I'll eat my Gingham tea towel if he calls one earlier than that). I'd stand for election myself, try to sort out the mess from within. But I just can't fight that dirty. It's enough to make me want to emigrate.

Does anyone know a country where the politicians have at least a vestige of honour left?

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2 Comments:

Blogger John R said...

The short answer to that is "no, there's no such place". Politics has always had its scandals, but the depressing thing about the recent crop is how grubby and... unambitious they all are. It'd be nice to see someone fiddling their expenses to cover the cost of their share of a private island somewhere that they hold neverending orgies on during the summer break, but sadly no one seems to think that big any more.

As for Brown being unelected, that's true, but then strictly speaking all our PMs are unelected, and the ability to change leader at the drop of a hat has been a part of the system for eons. And it's probably - probably - a good thing; the chances of being stuck with someone as spectacularly unpopular with everyone as Bush or Nixon, for instance, is relatively low. Even Thatcher got the boot when she reached that point, and she was practically a saint to her own party masses.

April 25, 2009 9:34 am  
Anonymous norby said...

I would agree with John-we vote our own leaders in here, and still allow them to take and use our tax money as their own little playfunds.

April 28, 2009 3:31 am  

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