Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MPs and their expenses in perspective

I run the risk of being shot by both sides here because I'm finding points to agree with on both sides of the argument with regards to the 'scandal' of MPs' expenses.

On one hand, I'm in agreement with the arguments in favour of what Paulie and others annoyingly call 'politics'. People who complain about how much people earn invariably do so as a cipher for some more general disapproval.

So, for example, people who complain about the Queen's personal wealth are usually closet republicans. Fair enough I say - but I wish they would just 'come out' instead of bleating about the expense of the civil list.

In my own case, I find that people who bitch about teachers' pay, holidays, and pensions fundamentally don't like teachers and would probably only approve of them if they were employed by the private sector. As it is, most of us are employed by the public sector and this they hate in a barely concealed way.

So as with MPs' expenses and their pay. That it is symbolic is plain from the way that what animates and outrages people is not the fact that Prudence has been spending money like a drunken sailor with a credit card but rather the outrage that was Jacqui Smith's bathplug. Bathplug-gate, I dare say we should call it.

Here I'm with Paulie and others defending 'politics': I'd argue that those whose blogs (I won't link them, I'm assuming you've read them) have gone into overdrive on this subject are for the most part 'libertarians', which is to say semi-reformed anarcho-capitalists who give the impression of being perpetually on the brink of recidivism. These - who never seem to complain about corporate greed or corruption - are the mirror image of those closet republicans who wouldn't be happy with the monarchy until the Queen arrives at the state opening of Parliament in a taxi wearing a tracksuit.

On the other hand, I'm losing a little sympathy with the 'get perspective' crew too. If in doubt, reach for the Macauley quote: "We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." It goes without saying that David Aaronovitch used this. (Can anyone remember a column from this writer that wasn't an apologia for what is? Neither can I.) Subtext: to complain about MPs' expenses is ridiculous. Because it's ephemeral, these outbursts of morality? Yet since there seem to be some people who think it's facilitating an eruption in our polity that is altogether more enduring - as they seem to be seriously suggesting that a few leaks published in the Telegraph creates a fascist-enabling environment. Methinks those calling for 'perspective' have rather lost it themselves. Here's Paulie, for example - imagining he's the voice of moderation:
"I'm...alarmed...about the anti-politics mood in the country. I think it presents a genuine threat - in so far as it can result in a new populist politics emerging. Populism of the Berlusconi, Putin or Pim Fortuyn variety."
Putin? Yes I'm sure that something like this is quite likely - because the similarities between the post-Soviet chaos of Russia and contemporary Britain are so close it's almost spooky. Or perhaps not. Berlusconi? Hmmm, emerges against a background of genuine corruption where the PR system beloved of complacent liberals tended to produce coalitions that lasted for about as long as a wine gum.

Not so in Britain where governments go on, and on, and on... This is something missing from the whole analysis, surely? We saw this with the twilight of the Tory years too - only these revelations were more sexy and interesting. Thankfully I don't live in London so I haven't disappeared into the Westminster-media navel-gazing loop that some of y'all live in but doesn't it work something like this: you stay in power too long, you expose yourself to this type of revelation because a) you've made too many enemies, b) as your power visibly fades, those in a position to leak lose any interest in loyalty to their political masters, assuming that they won't be the masters for much longer?

Or is that too boring for you - you'd rather imagine you're living in something akin to the last days of the Weimar Republic? Dare I say a little perspective is called for here? I can't claim to have done an exhaustive trawl of the commentary on this topic but as far as I can see only Norm is insisting one thing is not another thing; the rest of you have all gone a bit mental, if you don't mind me saying so...

NB: The scandal has inevitably raised the issue of what MPs should be paid as discussed by Chris Dillow here. I have no strong opinion about what MPs should be paid but I have to say I'm surprised that an economist would suggest that an MP should be paid on a scale similar to that of social workers. This completely omits risk: the MPs' job is very insecure - that of a social worker is not.

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