The ongoing saga of the British parliamentary expenses crisis crossed a major watershed with the charging of three Labour MPs, Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine, and one Tory peer, Lord Hanningfield, and the possibility of more to come.
There are so many layers to this. For a start the ‘gang of four’ are attempting to hide behind parliamentary immunity to prevent themselves being found guilty, literally explicitly making the case of ‘one rule for them, one rule for us’. Then there is the unprecedented nature of what is taking place, MPs being charged and held to account, which does in some sense remove another layer of the pretence of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’.
The last two MPs to be charged were Mohammed Sarwar, Labour MP for Glasgow Govan and Fiona Jones, Labour MP for Newark, both first elected in 1997. Sarwar was found innocent, whereas Jones was convicted of election expense fraud which was overturned on appeal only for her to lose her seat in the 2001 election.
None of the Tory MPs in ‘cash for honours’, Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith, were ever charged, although their political careers were ruined. Neither Jonathan Aitken or Jeffrey Archer were MPs when they were charged, found guilty and served time in prison, although Archer was the Tory Mayoral candidate for London.
I don’t for one minute want to rush to the defence of the charged foursome, but isn’t there a sense that they are being hung out to dry to preserve others and deflect from the endemic corruption of the Westminster system? A mere three MPs are facing charges, while more than 350 faced having to repay expenses, over half the House of Commons.
Jim Devine to my mind seems just too easy a target, an out of condition, traditional Labour MP with a widely known drink problem which nearly became a public issue in the by-election which elected him in 2005. He is being charged because there is a cut and dried case that he has been caught committing fraud, but it begs why others aren’t being charged?
What about the ghastly Julie Kirkbride and Andrew MacKay who conspired to make sure that the taxpayer was funding every one of their homes? Or Nadine Dorries, who has called the people’s revolt against this, a ‘witch hunt’ and whom it transpires has paid £35,000 over the course of one year to a close friend to do her PR?
Even more serious than these cases was the widespread ‘flipping’, undertaken to fill up each house with ill-gotten booty at taxpayer’s expense and then avoid Capital Gains Tax when selling. Step forward James Purnell, who until he resigned was piloting yet another New Labour welfare ‘reform’ measure clamping down on ‘scroungers’, and George Osborne of ‘we are all in it together’ fame. And there was the case of the then Home Secretary, once one of the great offices of state, Jacqui Smith, who memorably could not even answer the simple question of where her ‘home’ was.
Jim Devine seems a bit of a soft target compared to this, although his Channel Four News interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy has to go down as a spectacular road crash. Devine could not recall consistently the amount he paid his cleaners each month as it varied from one minute to another.
His defence that his actions were not ‘fraud’ because he had not ‘personally gained’, and that his switching of funds about had been approved by a whip was close to music hall comedy. Devine conjectured that he used to do this sort of thing with his ‘underspend’ all the time in Unison and the health service, before lamenting that he had been thrown it at the deep end as an MP with no ‘in-service training’.
This interview is a classic of someone lost in a storm part of their own making and yet also something much bigger. As an example of the cultureshock and clash going on as MPs react to the popular rage of a citizenry, the Devine example has only been equalled in Scottish responses to this crisis by the great ‘Major’ Eric Joyce, MP for Falkirk, and consistently winner of the prize most expensive MP in the House (and the first ever million pound MP in cumulative expenses!).
Joyce’s interview in the summer of last year on Newsnight Scotland (June 18th 2009) is a gem, as he stumbled from disaster to disaster (sadly this great piece of broadcasting is not available on any website having been mysteriously removed - the background and details of it can be found at spinprofiles.org). Like Devine, Joyce had been caught paying for one thing out of another account, in this case for ‘political research’ out of the ‘stationery budget’, and paying it to his best friend. Why is Joyce not being charged? Indeed, why is Eric Joyce still a Labour MP?
Jim Devine, Eric Joyce, Julie Kirkbride, Nadine Dorries are part of the problem, but they are only a personification of something much more systematic. Something much more deep and profound is at work in this crisis which, as with Iraq, will prevent us moving on in the way our leaders constantly invite us to.
This crisis shows us the hollowing out of the old Westminster political system, with its quaint checks and balances and gentleman’s club rules. What has come in its place is a culture, set of institutions and procedures which is a grotesque parody of what a political system should be about, that is serving the people and delivering good, sound, honest governance to the populace.
We still hear the glib phrases trotted out about our political system not being corrupt, although fortunately this is happening more and more seldomly. What has happened in the last few years and has yet to fully sink in is the transformation of our political institutions and state from that old system into a new one which operates on entirely different principles. In short, this is the age of the Thatcherised/Blairised neo-liberal state, which has become about the maintenance of ‘Fantasy Island Britain’.
One of the underlying currents of popular anger going on is that people have been lectured, hectored and forced for thirty years by their politicians and conventional wisdom to more and more look after themselves in terms of pensions, finances, benefits and a host of economic and social rights. Most people resented this, but accepted it believing ‘there is no alternative’ to this new age of autonomous individual sovereignty.
Yet, at the same time as our political classes lectured us they built a parallel welfare state for their own benefit, developing an elaborate system of supports and deception to prevent us finding out. That is in part what the popular anger is about: anger at hypocrisy and a two tier system of rights, and anger at the sense of loss people feel about what has been taken away from them by a political class driven by its own sense of entitlement.
This whole sordid saga marks the beginning of the last days of parliamentary sovereignty and the start of a new political era. A new ethos and culture will emerge, define and remake our political system, but it could be quite unpleasant and difficult for quite a long time for a large swathe of our political classes.
Gerry’s blog was recently voted no. three best Scottish journalist and media blog as well as no. three best newcomer and can be found at gerryhassan.com