Saturday, April 04, 2009

Are all politicians crooks?

Some would say a resounding yes to that question, especially in the wake of the latest MPs expenses scandal. But we wouldn't have known about it at all had it not been for another politician's pioneering legislation. Here's today's Journal column.

A former Journal colleague of mine had a fairly straightforward view of politicians – one which, though I didn’t necessarily always share it, was at least admirable in its consistency.

It was, in essence, that they were all crooks, and that it was basically the role of the press to ensure the public were made aware of this indisputable fact of life.

It may surprise some readers to know that he and I had many a tussle over this question, my own default position being that, for all their faults, politicians are no more intrinsically good or evil than the rest of us.

Looking at the continuing controversy over MPs expenses, though, I do begin to wonder whether my old friend might have had a point.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown occupies the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of his view of the politician’s role. Like many of his generation and background, he has always believed he is in public life to “do good.”

In his case, it’s probably genuine. Mr Brown has been called many, many things in the course of his long career – but no-one has ever accused him of having his snout in the trough.

This week we saw Gordon at his do-gooding best, trying to fix the world’s economic problems with the help of his fellow G20 leaders and their trillion-dollar rescue package.

Mr Brown is one of those rare people who still believes in the power of politics to change the world. If he is right in this instance, he may yet confound the sceptics and win that unprecedented fourth term in power for Labour.

But whatever the long-term political impact or otherwise of this week’s G20 summit, the Prime Minister certainly could have done without the distraction of the latest expenses scandal.

When I saw last Sunday’s newspaper headline about Jacqui Smith claiming back the cost of adult movies, my first thought was that it’s either going to cost the Home Secretary her job, or alternatively leave the paper’s editor facing a large legal bill.

To date, it has done neither, but it has certainly focused minds on the need for reform of the system like never before.

The three main party leaders have all now agreed to speed-up an inquiry into MPs expenses by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, but some fear the recent spate of revelations has already reduced Parliament to a laughing stock.

Should Mr Brown have sacked Ms Smith? The temptation must have been very great, but as it happens, I think he has done the right thing by not giving in to it.

To have dismissed the first female Home Secretary in our history on the basis of her husband’s taste for adult movies would have had the Labour sisterhood truly up in arms – with some justification.

Rather than make a martyr of her by acting precipitously – as Tony Blair once did with Peter Mandelson - he has left her in place in the expectation that events will run their course.

I suspect Ms Smith will make it easy for him and fall on her own sword. She has a wafer-thin majority in Redditch, and barring a major electoral turnaround, her career in frontline politics is almost certainly drawing to a close.

But the issue of course goes far wider than the fate of one individual Cabinet minister. It is not so much a problem for Mr Brown’s government as for the entire political class.

I cannot improve on the analysis provided by a pro-Labour blogger, Shamik Das, on the Labour loyalist website this week.

“It isn’t just the perceived financial impropriety that appals taxpayers as the fact that many MPs simply do not believe what they are doing to be wrong. So out of touch with their constituents are they, that they actually believe the taxpayer should pick up the tab for bath plugs or pay-per-view films,” he wrote.

“While the vast majority of MPs undoubtedly go into politics for the right reasons, it is the alarming ease with which they forget where they’ve come from and how their constituents live that is the most depressing aspect of this sorry affair.”

One who certainly seems to have forgotten where he came from is Speaker Michael Martin, who showed once more this week that he is less the custodian of the dignity of Parliament than a shop-steward for greedy MPs.

Displaying his unerring ability to shoot the messenger, he told the Commons he was “deeply disappointed” that 1.3m expense receipts from MPs which had been handed to a private contractor had now been leaked to the media.

You might have thought that the holder of his office would be more “deeply disappointed” by the behaviour of the MPs who have tarnished the reputation of the House over which he presides, but no.

Mr Martin is more concerned about catching whistleblowers – always in my experience a sign that an institution has lost touch with the people it is supposed to be serving.

One final point to make about all this, though, is that it demonstrates the impact that has been made by that initially much-derided creature, the Freedom of Information Act.

When the former South Shields MP and public services minister Dr David Clark first produced this piece of legislation in 1997, it was rubbished even by Cabinet colleagues, yet it has become a vital weapon in the hands of those seeking to uphold the public’s right to know.

It may be making life difficult for the political class – but in terms of exposing wrongs that need addressing, FoI has already had a hugely positive effect on our political culture.

Even my cynical ex-colleague might have conceded that Dr Clark was a politician who did some good.

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Anonymous said...

Gordon Brown claimed for his light bulbs and sky subscription and also for second home now thought he had two provided. Michael Martin is typical west of Scotland Labour Mafia, ignorant biased and out for all he can get, a true shop steward of the Labour Party. He is a disgrace to the Office of Speake, I grew up among these people and despise them all.

Richardr said...

"To have dismissed the first female Home Secretary in our history on the basis of her husband’s taste for adult movies ..."

I think you have missed the point here - most people have no problem in her husband having whatever tastes he wants. The problem is when she claimed for them as part of her expenses as being an MP.

Anonymous said...

I think what really pisses voters off are the serious pigs like Jacqui Smith & Tony McNulty that are deliberately manipulating the system for maximum personsl gain.

Then we get lectures about how unfair the Tory IHT propsals are and then read the various moves made by the Milliband's on their (socialist) father's multi million property portfolio.

Meanwhile Brown who can easily stop this is clearly unwilling to do so and just wants to kick it into the long grass with yet another review.
The electorate will not forget this.

Plato said...

Anon ^^^ has hit the nail on the head.

Parasite is nearest life-form I can think of. Not of course forgetting the 146 MPs who have claimed the magic £23083, or the egregious Derek Conway.

stephen rouse said...

As the bloke who was usually caught in the middle of you and our former colleague, I suppose "tussle" is one way of describing it! However, he was/is a fine journalist, and it's nice to see you acknowledge him this way.

Ben said...

I've started a petition for free bath plugs to be provided to all hard-working families, in the interests of fairness.

See it here:

Anonymous said...

But there is something rotten in the heart of Gordon Brown's Downing Street, and what is sadder is that it has infected places like Oxfam's HQ in Oxford, a Labour cess-pool, which is filled with Draper's and McBride's henchmen and wannabe special and media advisers in Brown's government: Antonia Bance for instance, a local Labour politician who is deputy director of Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme, and is allegedly using Oxfam for her own party political ambitions, if you go by many of the comments on her blog.

skipper said...

Estelle Morris got closest to what politicians are like when she asked a colleague what Cabinet members were like. The reply was: 'the good news is- they're just like us; the bad news is- they're just like us.'

Anonymous said...

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you?

Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes?

Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone!

So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!