My dear Q,
Spring is here and the weather for the last few days has been splendid and everything is just fine as any mortal man can desire. I do hope and also trust that all is well with you, your family and all good friends. If I did not trust as well as hope I should be miserable.
Events, my dear boy, events, since my last letter to you have been very cruel to both the boys in blue and their masters at Westminster.
As I explained to you recently, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s pivotal performance as host of the Group of 20 this month briefly boosted his sagging political fortunes ahead of the elections he must call by the middle of next year. That bounce has dissipated rapidly as his government continues to come under fire for bad political decisions and ill judgement, but more importantly however, because of accusations of character assassination plots against his opponent within the Labour party and the opposition Conservative party.
You will of course remember in my last letter to you, I mentioned the departure from 10 Downing Street of one Damian McBride, former head of Strategy at the Prime Minister’s office after it emerged he had proposed a smear campaign against senior opposition Conservative party members in parliament. Well this misfortune, if I can call it that, is still brutally inflicting pain on the British Prime Minister
Mr McBride’s untimely departure came on the heels of another embarrassing development for the Prime Minister and one of his senior cabinet ministers, Mrs Jacqui Smith, the Internal Affairs Minister.
A few months ago, another Damian (yes, too many Damians’), but from the opposition Conservative party, found himself in the middle of a police investigation relating to matters of national security. This other Damian, full name; Damian Green, is the opposition Conservative party spokesman on Immigration, a very thorny issue in British politics as you can imagine.
Please, bear with me, as I take you down history lane about the British’s Parliament, so that you can understand the significance of what I am about to tell you.
Since 1642 during the reign of Charles 1, agents of the crown (police or soldier to ordinary mortals like us) cannot enter the British parliament without permission. This law came about after Charles 1’s sent soldiers into the Houses of Parliament to arrest five Members of Parliament. The king’s order to arrest the MPs in 1642 was never executed and since then, agents of the crown have been barred from entering Parliament without permission.
Last November, counter-terrorism police officers arrived at Mr Damian Green’s London home with a search warrant. Mr Damian Green MP was arrested and his home, constituency office and Parliament office were all searched and documents removed by police. He was held by the police for nine hours. His arrest came after a series of leaks that had brought damaging headline for the Government over immigration and security policies.
The arrest of a senior opposition Member of Parliament caused uproar among Members of Parliament and the general public but the Internal Affairs Minister Mrs Jacqui Smith and the police insisted that the arrest was justified and that the investigation will go ahead.
Today, as I write this to you, the Ministers and civil servants who called in the police have been accused of provoking a chain of events not seen at the British Parliament since the reign of Charles 1. The charge from the public, the press, lawyers and even politicians is that the police were “politically motivated” to support the Minister, and that the Government acted out of embarrassment over leaks that exposed their incompetence, not a threat to national security as was claimed at the time of the arrest of Mr Damian Green MP.
The general public outcry is so loud because the police investigation cost the taxpayers between £3milllon and £5million, and led to the shocking sight of an MP being hauled into police cell and threatened with prosecution on serious national security charges. And worst still, five months later, the Director Of Public Prosecution said leaks about government blunders obtained by the opposition were actually matters of public interest and that there was threat to national security.
As I keep telling you, one of the reasons why I enjoy politics so much on this side of the Atlantic is because of the decency that always surfaces after some failure in leadership. You see, if you abuse power in this country, some day, you will be called to account. And if I can boast about the decency and democratic liberties this side of the Atlantic enjoy, it is because today, those involved in the abuse of power have been humiliated.
The British Prime Minister and his “chief attack-dog” Damian McBride have been humbled. The British Police, who so terribly mishandled the opposition Spokesman’s case, have been made to look foolish; and Mrs Jacqui Smith, the Internal Affairs Minister who ordered the police, has been debased because her Ministry exaggerated the threat to national security from leaks fed to the opposition party.
Without any doubts, each of the cases illustrates the tendency of government, even in mature democracies to inch towards despotism where it can get away with it. But overnight, the spotlight on the Prime Minister’s furtive ruses against his enemies has crippled the Labour government. To fair-minded but uninformed people, the combination of events arouses suspicions about rottenness at the heart of the British Government.
But there is another argument: Which is, once political parties and policies for better governance decline in importance, once the news media become increasingly concerned with the reporting of personalities and once the internet-with its instant response ability, its tendency to destroy secrets and its vast memory- becomes the dominant medium, then scandal, gossip and personality come into the foreground as main elements in the political struggle for power
Another thorny issue that continues to damage the reputation of British parliamentarians is the huge amount that MPs collect every year as allowances. Indeed, in the present climate, British MPs are making a serious effort to displace bankers as the country’s favourite villains.
At the British Houses of Parliament, there is outrage at the slurs now being flung at parliamentarian for their use , or abuse, of parliamentary expenses-a subject to which no one gave any attention until expenses were made partly public by the freedom of information act that came into force in 2005. Most British parliamentarians do not recognise the fat-cat-lifestyles being blasted across the pages of newspapers in the country, accusing MPs of “riding gravy trains” in terms of their allowance.
There is however, a considerable body of evidence to suggest that MPs across the board are “abusing the allowance systems. And that British parliamentary culture has been slow to catch up with a world in which the public find out much more than they once did about what goes on and are understandably shocked that MPs can keep their jobs, and escape prosecution, after shameless wrong doing.
Now imagine these stories; a Conservative MP, Derek Conway was paying his son a salary from State funds as a parliamentary researcher- though the son was studying at Newcastle University at the same time and no one could recall having seen him inside parliament. Husband and wife Conservative MPs Sir Nicholas and Ann Winterton claimed thousands of pounds as rent for a property that belongs to them; according to public records, the Wintertone bought their London property in the 1990s and later paid off the mortgage. They then put the £700,000 property into a family trust to avoid inheritance tax. The beneficiaries of the trust were their children.
Since February 2002, they have occupied it as tenants, and paid the trust £21,600 a year in rent using their parliamentarian allowance for running a second home, known as the additional costs allowance. This practice, and that of employing relatives and closed friends as parliamentary researchers or otherwise, is widespread amongst parliamentarians of all parties. Then there is the story of the Internal Affairs Minister claiming for everything in her two houses, including light bulbs and pornography videos, watched by her husband.
And how about the Speaker of the House, it emerged recently that he allowed his wife and their housekeeper to shuttle around London in a taxi, at a cost of more £4,000 and this will be paid for by the State.
Few parliamentarians are bold enough to say it in public, but politicians of all colours think that the parliamentarian salary is too low. The basic salary is just over £60,000, and because of the demands of the job the allowances is seen by many as back-up to their main salary.
Talking to parliamentarians, one reaches the conclusion that there are flaws in the system, and the impression that parliament is a colossal gravy train for its members is a cruel perception that is too damaging to be allowed to endure in an era when distrust of politicians is prevalent, and disengagement from politics so widespread.
With their good name under threat, however, British MPs are by turn angry and nervous. “It’s just never ending, non-stop-we are all being dragged through the mud,” says one. Another MP, Liberal Democrat Norman Baker, who has not made himself popular with his colleagues after he called for reforms, said “there is a widespread belief that MPs are coining it and that we have got our snouts in the trough”.
Sympathy for politicians has become a minority sport. But there have been some voices expressing concern about the attack on the integrity of the British parliamentarian system.
Writing in the London Independent newspaper recently, a leading political commentator, Andrew Grice, pointed out that the stream of stories about MPs expenses are not wrong, and that they are fair game, since they involve public money. But they add up to a rather “misleading picture”. He went on to observe that “the vast majority of our MPs are not corrupt, or lining their pockets at the taxpayers’ expense. I suspect they are a much more honest and honourable bunch than many of their forgoing counterparts, including members of the European Parliament”.
Tony Travers, an academic at the London School of Economics, says that as most of the revelations have so far proved to be “low-level”, the political system cannot be branded corrupt. “It is the mundaneness of it, it is the kind of very British half-heartedness of it, that makes it so dispiriting in some ways”, he says. “British MPs in general are in the very top league in terms of probity by international standard,” Mr Travers concluded.
In 1973, the then British Prime Minister, Ted Heath, described the expenses culture at Lonrho (a corporate institution with vast interests in Africa) as the “unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”. Today, thanks to freedom of information, the British people have uncovered the unacceptable face of politics and, thanks to modern technology they got an unpleasant taste of law and order. We shall continue this chat on my return to London because these matters are not going away just now.
I hope you are fairly well and going along comfortably. Remember me to all and God Bless!!!
Winston Ojukutu-Macaulay Jnr