The ancient Chinese saying that we live in interesting times is certainly true of British politics in 2009. I cannot remember such an upsurge of public anger at the conduct of politicians during my lifetime. The widespread antipathy to our parliamentary representatives – of all parties – amounts almost to hatred. The swelling procession of financially crooked MPs and peers whose misdeeds are being exposed daily in the media simply don’t get it. Their almost universal stock response has been to say that their greedy raids into the public purse were a ‘mistake’, or the fault of ‘poor accounting’, or even to blame ‘the rules’. Only a handful have said they are sorry (to have been found out, presumably), and none have expressed contrition that what they did was obviously just plain wrong and should never have happened in the first place.
The latest example is Labour MP Ben Chapman, who benefited by £15,000 over ten months because he was allowed by the Commons Fees Office to claim mortgage interest which he was no longer paying, having reduced his mortgage. The response of Mr Chapman, who is the latest MP to be investigated by the Whips for possible impropriety, has been to say "I do not believe I have done anything wrong." When asked if it was true that he had admitted continuing to claim for interest payments on his entire mortgage after repaying £295,000, he told the BBC: "It may be. I don't know". When it was put to him that he may have been claiming more than he was paying, the MP said: "If I've done so it was following the advice the Fees Office gave me. I'll have to discuss it with them and see how it should be tackled".
One would think that any normally conscientious person would be familiar with the exact state of their personal financial affairs, and would not respond to such a serious allegation with an insouciant “Maybe, I don’t know”. It is this type of lofty dismissiveness emanating from all sides of the Commons which has so infuriated the public, who are more and more loudly calling for prosecutions and Jail sentences for the most serious offenders.
But this expenses brouhaha is essentially a distraction, if a gruesomely entertaining one, from the real malaise of contemporary politics. It is not the gnat of MPs’ corrupt expenses claims which should preoccupy the angry voters, but the camel of inept and morally bankrupt policies being piled one upon another for years past by a government that unbelievably still claims to possess a ‘moral compass’, and which are largely nodded through by a supine and ineffective opposition. These are people who regard themselves as competent to manage the country’s affairs and are incapable of controlling their personal expenditure.
It is not just the tribal culture of MPs and peers that is wrong; it is the entire political culture which flourishes in parliament. And not only in parliament – in the country, too. It is all very well for people to rage about the personal dishonesty of politicians when they fail to rage against many of the oppressive laws made and grotesque policies pursued by these politicians in our name. It is not just Gordon Brown, or the government, or parliament, who have lost their moral compass: it is the British electorate as a whole.