Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?

by Prof Ryan Spox

Things that annoyed me today:

Mostly it was the jaw-dropping suggestion that some of this country’s illustrious band of law-makers cannot be trusted to put the Nation’s long-term best interests ahead of their own desire for short-term personal gain.

We refer, of course, to the alleged misbehaviour of a number (somewhere between 1 and 650) of elected MP’s and another number (somewhere between 2 and 763) of members of the House of Lords who may, or may not, have been engaged in slightly questionable dealings with external corporate interests. If you point your Internet pixies here: “Corrupt? Moi?” you can read all the sordid details of who is supposed to have done what when to whom and for how much.

Obviously, we don’t believe a word of it.

For one thing, everyone knows that MPs are democratically elected representatives who have selflessly devoted themselves to serving “the public good”. Often, they have turned down the opportunity to earn vast personal wealth through a business career. Most of them live a frugal lifestyle, spending their working week living in cheap, rented flats, travelling to and from their place of work on crowded public transport and then putting in long unsociable  hours in cramped, old-fashioned accommodation. And even when the working day is over they have other duties to attend to, from helping constituents with legal or social issues to advising charitable institutions on how best to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Yes, just one quick glance at the daily life of a typical British MP will bring home the reality that, truly, these people are a special breed of secular saints.

And what is true for MPs is even more so for members of the House of Lords. Once, sensibly, we knew the Lords could be trusted to always put the nation’s interests first because it was mostly composed of people whose impeccable qualifications for the job had been, quite literally, bred into them. Unfortunately, with the weakening of aristocratic blood-lines due to over-enthusiastic breeding from a declining gene-pool, it proved necessary to pad out the Lords with what were, for want of a better term, Commoners. Here, however, that British genius for muddling through came into play. Over time the Lords was slowly filled up with people who were either semi-retired time-served senior political figures with a wealth of governmental experience and a proven track record of selfless public service or they were the next best thing – semi-retired time-served senior Establishment figures with a wealth of business experience and a proven track record of selfless public service.

And so what we have ended up with is an Upper and Lower house both filled with people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others, no matter what the financial, emotional or physical cost to themselves. You couldn’t ask for a better way to run a country!

Now, we will admit there have been some glitches along the way. We did have the “Cash for Honours” scandal, where political figures were, allegedly, taking money from rich people in return for a suitable mention on the honours lists: a knighthood here, an elevation to a Lordship there, but we must remember a couple of important points. Firstly, running a political party, or even just a personal political campaign, is a very expensive business and, clearly, because our MPs are dedicated, selfless secular saints, anyone who helps them to pay for their campaigns is also acting selflessly and in the public good and therefore, obviously, deserves recognition by a grateful nation. And, secondly, since the recipients of these honours were always wealthy and successful business people, it follows that they are exactly the sort of people we want to be elevated to a Lordship and thus given a seat in the House of Lords.

There was also the “Cash for Questions” scandal in which individual MPs appeared to be taking money from external, often corporate, bodies and, in return, raising specific topics during such Parliamentary free-for-alls as “Prime Minister’s Question Time”. Yes, it looked bad, some might even say corrupt, but we must remember that these were, in a sense, legitimate donations just like those offered during the “Cash for Honours” scandals but the difference here was that the donors didn’t even expect any concrete recognition in return. They just, perhaps, suggested that a topic of public interest could be raised in an appropriate Parliamentary forum. That’s a twofold example of public-spirited behaviour by corporate bodies: first of all they donate money to assist the political process and secondly they raise awareness of important national issues. And yet the media, whose sole and selfish purpose is to make profit by selling advertising, publicly pilloried all concerned for their alleged “corruption.” Now that is just silly! After all, if you had written to your own MP and drawn his (and most of them are boys or, more accurately Old Boys) attention to, say, the plight of the abandoned, psychologically damaged ex-Servicemen who make up a disturbing proportion of our prison population and, at the same time, had included a £10 donation to help him publicise that cause, would there have been any mention in the national press? Of course not!

And then there was the whole “MPs Expenses” misunderstanding in which it was alleged that a teeny minority of MPs and Lords were taking advantage of the Parliamentary expenses system to benefit their own wallets. Now it should be obvious that, even with the finest democratic selection system in the civilised world, with over 1300 individuals filling the halls of Westminster there is a small chance that one or two of them will crumble in the face of overwhelming temptation and make a silly mistake that costs them their position. But we have laws for dealing with that sort of thing, which is why a couple of MPs did face prosecution for, frankly, fiddling their expenses. Justice was served; the system worked.

As for the other, genuine mistakes and misunderstandings, there are a number of important facts we must consider before leaping on the bandwagon of berating MPs over their expenses. For one thing, they don’t exactly earn a living wage and, for another, being an MP (or an active Lord) does cost quite a lot of money. It stands to reasons that you have to spend a lot of time living in London, and that’s really expensive. And, obviously, you have to travel to and from London, unless you already live a short bus-ride away from the Palace of Westminster which, for all sorts of complex geographic and demographic reasons, most MPs don’t. Now, we used to get round that problem by simply not letting people become MPs or Lords unless they were already rich enough to pay the day-to-day expenses themselves. The tacit understanding was that they could then exploit their position in Parliament to generate revenues that would adequately compensate them for their personal investment in the nation’s well-being. But, to be honest, that didn’t work out too well over the years. Which is why we have the current system of salaries and expenses, all of which are carefully scrutinised by committees and commissions staffed by Top Men. Top Men, people! It doesn’t get more trustworthy than that.

Furthermore, the fault, as should be obvious, lies with the system, not the people. Clearly, if the system is too complex for MPs to understand then honest mistakes are inevitable as an over-worked MP struggles with the subtleties of an Excel spread sheet and a crumpled Starbucks’ receipt. And, if the system is set up in such a way that minor, personally beneficial adjustments can be made then that, too, is the fault of the system. You cannot blame a person for sticking to the letter of the law rather than its spirit. That would be as unfair as blaming corporate tax lawyers for insisting their clients blindly follow every aspect of the laws on corporation tax, including exploiting all the loop-holes.

And now we have the allegations of MPs and Lords agreeing to act as paid lobbyists for assorted business interests. Allegations made, of course, by journalists in pursuit of profit and backed up by questionable circumstantial evidence in the form of mere time-stamped and untampered-with video recordings.

But, really people, are we to accept that, when an MP or Lord is selflessly serving the public good, they must also decline any opportunity to advance their career outside Parliament or undertake legitimate paid consultancy work unrelated to their Parliamentary for an external body even when that work may, conceivably, end up benefiting some parts of the nation? Ridiculous! That would be like expecting senior military staff not to cultivate close financial relationships with defence contractors or telling GPs not to accept all-expenses paid promotional trips from pharmaceutical companies.

Or, indeed, telling political parties that they cannot accept vast donations from large corporate entities who have a whole raft of carefully thought out policies they’d like to see reflected in the next party manifesto. Why, without this sort of thing, the whole British political system just couldn’t work!