You are probably aware of the story that has been rocking the British political establishment for the past week. If you are not, you can get it straight from the horse’s mouth by reading this account that the Daily Telegraph newspaper has published of its investigation into expenses claims of British Members of Parliament.
Let’s get this out of the way first: the behaviour of so many British MPs is inexcusable, and their petty greed has done so much to bring the political and democratic system into disrepute. They have failed in their obligation to observe high standards, and have compounded the failure by, in many cases, appearing to want to defend what they had done by saying that it was ‘within the rules’. We were only an inch away from hearing someone say that they were ‘only following orders’. It will be some time before the damage from all this can be repaired, and democracy is the main victim.
So much, so obvious. But actually, do read the Telegraph’s account, and then maybe consider this. I cannot read the article without feeling a sense of high irritation at the self-congratulatory tone of the newspaper, and I cannot help wondering about the tabloid-style sensationalism they have employed to advance this story. In fact, they have turned it not into a story but a whole mini-series, quite unnecessarily spinning it out over several days, presumably in part in order to build up circulation. I am not for a moment suggesting they should not have published this information; on the contrary, it is shameful that it took so long to see the light of day. Nor am I being even slightly ambivalent about the culpability of the politicians. But the way this campaign was advanced was calculated to inflict maximum damage not on the politicians – that was going to happen anyway – but on the political system as a whole.
Furthermore, across the media this story has involved highly paid British journalists condemning much more modestly paid politicians. And therein lies another issue. For some time the UK political establishment has been playing a game of under-paying MPs, to make the pay appear modest in public analysis, while encouraging them through nod and wink to supplement their pay via the expenses system. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when bait is dangled so visibly in the water that the fish will bite. The whole system has turned rotten, encouraging too many politicians to go through their careers on the make.
The scandal has not broken in the same way in Ireland, but probably there is doubtful behaviour here too. Some general analysis of the system here has already begun, as in this Irish Times article. It is probably inevitable that more attention will be paid to the conduct of TDs, but it is also to be hoped that we avoid the undercurrent of cynicism about the integrity of politics.
The political system consists of more than just the lives, conduct and deeds of the politicians. It is what secures our basic freedoms and rights, and the stability we need to generate wealth and secure fairness and welfare for the public good. The last time that trust in the political framework broke down comprehensively was in Germany’s Weimar Republic. And we all know what happened after that.
We are living in very dangerous times.