Counting the cost of the expenses

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.

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6 Comments on “Counting the cost of the expenses”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I think you may be over egging the pudding just a bit. There is a long jump between Weimar and someone buying horseshit for the roses. And while I will grant you that getting the public purse to pay for the cleaning of ones moat was going the whole Hogg. That someone feels the need to live behind it in this day and age displays a family unease over generations that a few pounds will never sate. And there is nothing more certain than that he would have found a way for the exchequer to pay, anyway.
    Now to Ireland. No, Eire. You have to smile a bit and nod a few times on reading this over the past few weeks. And what is so very disappointing, that so many have some Irish connections. You would think they would be better at it. You wait, when the IT finds the TD’s expenses and they will be handed over without any issue. But it will be like trying to read through fog and will be as easy to pin down. Remember there is a Judge or three sitting at the castle, for God knows how long, and seem to be little nearer to anything.


  2. Some good points, Vincent.

    My reference to Weimar wasn’t in order to compare lawnmower repairs at the taxpayer’s expense with, say, massive unemployment and marching brownshirts; but rather to point out that we now appear to have one key element in common: cynicism about and disillusionment with the ‘normal’ political process. That’s something to fear…

  3. Jilly Says:

    I do take your point about disillusionment with the political process being worrying. On the other hand, when there’s a lot to be cynical about in that process, a lack of disillusionment can be equally worrying.

    I’m thinking in particular of what happened in the US between 2000-2008, when there were many violations of constitutional law, human rights and civil liberties: and for most of those 8 years, the majority of US citizens displayed an alarming degree of ‘faith’ (if that’s quite the word) in their government. The presidency became an imperial one in more ways than one, with a widely-expressed view in the media that to question the administration’s decisions or to hold it to account and demand transparency or accountability, was tantamount to ‘treason’.

    Irish politics are not, thankfully, in the same situation. But the public’s apathy and LACK of fury over the gombeen chicanery which is apparently normal in many quarters of Leinster House really, really worries me.

  4. Hugh Carthy Says:

    Firstly, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the Daily Telegraph is in the business of making money, and in terms of the media in general, we had just better get used to being strung along for as long as we are prepared to continue paying for drip-fed information – we have only ourselves to blame!

    Secondly, has nobody noticed that we have become so used to hearing lies and obfuscation in response to exposure of wrongdoing that we just don’t seem to care any more? If you like, you can trace the evidence back through Brian Lenihan’s “mature recollection” when he was caught out overstepping his authority a few years ago, or Sean Doherty’s 2-foot high “security wall”. Don’t get me started!!

    Seriously, though, exposing a scandal today just doesn’t have the same effect on us as it did in the past. I used to believe that UK politicians were more honourable than their Irish counterparts, in that they were much more likely when exposed to hold their hands up and quietly shuffle off, whereas our lot were more likely to brazen it out until time had dulled public memory and they became “rehabilitated” – Beverly-Cooper Flynn, or Michael Lowry, anybody?

    I despair that ordinary people aren’t angry enough any more to care what’s going on, and are prepared to be led by what they read and hear in the media. Thus, the first line of defence for the exposed is to spin the story and to muddy the waters so much that people just give up trying to see through the fog. Scandals are now no more than entertainment for a cynical public.

    To finish with a light-hearted example, Donald Trump has decided to allow Miss California (Carrie Prejean)to keep her title despite the fact that she appears to have broken the rules by having posed semi-naked as a teenager. We used to say that rules are made to be broken. Now, it seems, they’re made to be interpreted!


    • Many thanks, Hugh. There’s a thread going through the responses here that the public is not angry enough, and I’m not sure I agree. If you listen to all the vox pops on the BBC and the other media reports you’ll see that there is in fact anger everywhere. Read the letters to the editor in the Irish newspapers and you get the same. There is no shortage of anger and indignation, so much so that I think the time is right to move to another stage and to ensure that we have a viable and honourable system, and to secure democratic politics.

      • Hugh Carthy Says:

        I take your point, but stand over my own by distinguishing between anger and indignation/frustration. I put most letters to the Editor in the latter category, together with ranting blogs, chattering over lunch, chaining oneself to railings and throwing eggs at the Chairman of AIB (although that man was clearly very cross!!). The point is that, at the end of the day, venting your frustration doesn’t really achieve very much.
        Declan Ganly, on the other hand is angry, as are Frank Dunlop, investment fund managers and, in a way, pensioners (God bless them). Whether you support them or not, they’ve all been angry enough to go and do something concrete about the things that annoy them.

        You’ve hit the nail square on the head – the key is an honourable system. Honour is what used to distinguish the UK politicians’ response to exposure from that of ours. Now, I fear, the Mother of Parliaments has all but succumbed to the new morality. Betty Boothroyd’s claim that Michael Martin’s decision to resign as Speaker is an “honourable one” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/19/speaker-michael-martin-resigns) rings very hollow.


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