My dear Q,
I am writing this in my study whilst monitoring radio and TV channels broadcasting phone-in calls, debates, news and comments and other public reactions to the slow motion train wreck of British Parliamentary system I wrote you about last week. Well, as expected, there is much causality; so far, the Speaker, Mr Michael Martin is political dead but yet to be buried and there are about a dozen seriously damaged MPs in intensive care with little hope of surviving and scores of badly wounded MPs and their prognostic reports is not very favourable.
One thing I noticed from my window as I watched the crash is that many of the Parliamentarians who survived are staggering around amid the wreckage of their reputation, are still not able to take in the seriousness of the disaster which had occurred. The Emergency Services personnel on the scene are unsympathetic and in their quiet moment very happy about the crash.
On the radio and television channels across the country, it is even worst. I can report to you that the British people have had almost two weeks of one long laugh-in, lying on the floor, legs wagging in the air, booming with righteous indignation. In fact, the other day, on BBC One, Question Time, Senior Government Ministers and Parliamentarians suffered the ultimate public humiliation when they were booed on live TV. This normally well-mannered audience was shouting, heckling, clearly incandescent. The tide has turned, and the people have had enough.
The Parliamentary train crash was one big accident waiting to happen, and for a moment, the British people have been distracted from the recession and are thoroughly entertained.
Never has Her Majesty Revenue & Customs favourite phrase, “all claims must be supported by invoices”, been turned on its progenitors to such devastating effect. The MPs expenses row is a true mob uprising, a revenge of those downtrodden by power, victim of fat-cat Parliamentarians who, for the past decade, have passed one oppressive measure after another intruding on the rights and privacy of citizens.
But why are people so angry you may ask? Well, let me tell you a story.
Mrs Mranil Patel, a 41-year old mother of three, faces the possibility of a year’s imprisonment. She is the first person in Britain to have been charged with “school application fraud”. Mrs Patel gave her mother’s address as her own, when submitting an application for her five year old son to enter Pinner Park First School. Her mother’s house was in the catchment areas for this popular school, whereas her own family home was three miles outside.
Mrs Patel, who insists that she was living with her mother at the time the application form was posted, will appear before Harrow magistrates later this month on a charge of “fraud by false representation” On the top of my head, I can tell you many, many other similar stories and new laws and regulations, about admission to schools, hospitals, Universities, renovating your own home, buying a car or a house and even having a dog as a pet.
It is the contrast between the treatment meted out by the state to “ordinary” people such as Mrs Patel and the apparent impunity of Members of Parliament which so outrages the public, and understandably so. In my mind and that of millions across the country, “fraud by false representation” seems as good a phrase as any to describe some of the claims by MPs in slavering pursuit of the maximum allowances permitted by the parliamentary system.
Another argument making the rounds is that for many years now Britain no longer functions effectively, despite the billions spent maintaining it. Virtually every activity law-abiding citizens undertake seems to have become entangled in a web of energy-sapping orders from Westminster. One newspaper Columnist on this same subject wrote that “What ails Britain-beyond our economic problems-is that we have allowed a bossy Parliament (the same body which has ripped us off) to legislate our society piece by piece, to the point where modern life is excessively rules-based”.
And he is right. This obsessive culture of compliance has led to the death of children as young as three, because every public institution today has boxes that have to be ticked, to show they had followed the rules from Westminster. The City of London, once the biggest Financial Centre in the World was hardly under-regulated when the 2,500 staff of the Financial Services Authority spent their time forcing banks to fill out forms.
From managing Local Authorities, to Schools, the Police, Prison and other Social Services, the problem is not an absence of rules. It is because there are so many rules that they crowd out any space for better judgement or the exercise of individual morality. Experience has shown that when individuals are free they act ethically and most times reach the right conclusion than over-mighty bureaucracy.
And this is what troubles many Parliamentarians; their double-standard and hypocrisy have been found out by the public. MPs are embarrassed and some are even frightened for their future. In Parliament these days, that boisterous atmosphere especially at Prime Minister’s Question Time has gone; Parliamentarians these days are dull, polite, attentive, and well-behaved when in the House of Commons. Row upon on row of them sitting down, shy, ashamed and silent like chastised school-children from an earlier era.
Well, they should be ashamed; consider this, a husband and wife Conservatives MPs; Mr Andrew MacKay, MP, who is married to Julie Kirkbride, also an MP, claimed more than £1,000 a month to cover mortgage interest payments on their flat near Westminster.
At the same time, Ms Kirkdbride used her own second home allowance to claim more than £900 a month towards the loan on their family home in Bromsgrove. Their joint salary is over £130,000 annually and the husband was also one of the closest advisers to the Conservatives leader, David Cameron.
The arrangement came to light after Mr Cameron said that MPs could no longer justify their second home claims by saying that they had been in accordance with the rules. The Conservatives leader, in effect, sacked Mr MacKay, after deciding that his claims – reported to amount to at least £140,925 – were unacceptable.
The claim, which meant that the taxpayer subsidised both the couple’s homes by a figure approaching £300,000, had been in place for eight or nine years, according to the MP, Mr Andrew MacKay. The list is endless. From Multimillionaires claiming for items that they can easily afford to buy, to Labour Socialist MPs turn “New Labour” and now claiming thousands of pounds like a gold rush in the West.
Many Labour supporters feel betrayed by people they admired. One Liberal Commentator, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote that: “Too many in the (Tony) Blair circus believes in this “payback” to the point of madness and has enriched themselves shamelessly, justifying the unjustifiable to themselves and us”.
With more revelation to come, there are signs of a grassroots Labour revolt as MPs faced local party members in the coming days to defend their extravagant and even fraudulent expenses claims. Some Labour and Conservatives MPs may face reselection and expulsion if they are found to have broken the rules for parliamentarian expenses claims.
What is happening is no longer just a crisis for individuals, or even for individual parties: the political system itself is under attack, threatening the moral legitimacy of mainstream parties to govern. Parliament has failed, the government is paralysed and the will of the people is asserting itself.
Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert, says the crisis is unparallel in British politics: “The scandals in the French third and fourth republics are probably the nearest thing”. This is an implosion of the body politic. The implications are genuinely alarming”.
Politics has always bred scandals, from the Profumo affairs to “cash for questions”, but previously voters knew which party to blame-and simply switched to their opponent.
With every party now implicated, that safety valve has gone, says Ruth Fox, from the Hansard Society, a constitutional think-tank: “In the past, a general election would serve as a cleaning element. That option is not available to voters now”.
One basic reason why politics has reached this point is that members of Parliament were historically poorly paid for the amount of work that modern MPs expect to do. In 1983, when Gordon Brown first came to Parliament, an MP earned just over £15,000. It was an absurdly low figure even then. So what did those who could have changed the system do? They did nothing. Margaret Thatcher refused to give MPs the increase they needed or the framework for future salary review that would have put parliamentarian financing on a defensible basis. And John Major, Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown all followed her lead.
Today’s £65,000 parliamentary salary is better in real terms than 1983, and it is certainly a good income, but it is not high when compared with legislators in many other countries, or with professions with whom MPs might sensibly be compared.
Why did Thatcher and the rest hold off? Not because MPs didn’t need the money or wouldn’t vote for it. They held off because they were afraid of the newspapers, particularly The Sun. They were not prepared to risk the wrath of Rupert Murdoch. It was the press who stood between MPs and a sensible income. So the true patron of the expenses system against which the press rages today is the press itself.
Members of Parliament were furious. To appease them, they were encouraged to supplement their salaries through the expenses system. Recompense would replace remuneration. “Don’t be too hard on today’s MPs” the former Conservative MP for Harlow, Mr Jerry Hayes pleaded last night, “It’s all been done before. This lot just got caught”.
The Prime Minister, he says, “is not to blame for the greed – the person responsible for filling more boots than Imelda Marcos is Margaret Thatcher”.
But the over-mighty press is no more the sole cause of the current Parliamentarian disgrace than is the greed of MPs. The fundamental problem with British politics is the failure to reform their politics. Party politics remain deeply tribal in a very old fashion way. Without understanding this tribalism it is impossible to understand the dynamics of the expenses row or the fact that Michael Martin ever became Speaker at all – or even the reluctance of a party stuffed with wannabe peers to reform the House the Lords.
Virtually every expert on British politics and parliamentary system have said in recent days that the scandal broken by the Press exposing the expenses of some MPs, including senior government ministers has provoked a public reaction that does not just threaten to destabilise British democracy; it is already doing so: this is because the Queen has told Gordon Brown that she is worried that the scandalous revelation could damage Parliament and yet again.
My dear Old boy, the police from Scotland Yard are on their way to the Palaces of Westminster.
With the most kind regards to all my dear friends, I must sign off for now.
Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr