Books: A Point of View: Expensive Mistakes |
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Expensive Mistakes : on the debacle of MPs' expenses

(S05E08, broadcast 15th and 17th May 2009)

"A little feeling of entitlement"

We were never supposed to know about what the MPs were claiming on expenses. If somebody hadn’t pushed for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, the whole thing would have stayed nicely buttoned up. But then one thing led to another and all the data got onto the kind of secret disk designed to be left in a taxi but this time somebody tried to sell it to a newspaper and only sold half of it but then he sold the rest of it and so on until you don’t want to know how it happened, all you know is that it’s happening, and filling the news with great waves of hoo-hah by which you are meant to be stunned but somehow aren’t.

I speak for myself here, but I am reminded of the immortal words of Gertrude Stein when she said, ‘It is remarkable how I am not interested.’ And all I can say, as I sit here going through my own expenses — replacement of ball-point pen, fifty pence — is that when I find out that the richest man in the Cabinet, the one who’s already got seven properties, has done better than all his colleagues out of juggling his first and second residence is, if that’s a revelation, with what revelation will you be astounding me next? That Jordan and Peter Andre are splitting up?

Please. Try to contain your excitement as I just annotate these receipts for expenses relating to my forthcoming book, called Take It Easy, on the importance of relaxation to the working writer. Research trip to Acapulco including first-class flights and ten days at Hotel Las Brizas, twenty thousand pounds. Massage by muscle-detensioning operative Fifi La Bonza Ph.D., eighty pounds and thirty-nine pence. Lip balm, two pounds fifty.

The Daily Telegraph spilled the stories about the Labour MPs first. With the conspicuous exceptions of three MPs who didn’t claim all they could — a peculiar characteristic which we’ll get to later — most of them seem to have been working the system in the direction of the limits allowed. Some of them went near the edge of that and might lose their jobs for it, but at worst they were shuffling the first and second residence system in order to maximize what they could claim. Even the most active of the Labour MPs seemed pretty unambitious when it became the turn of the Tory MPs to have their stories spilled. Your typical Labour expenses claimer claims the expense on an extra radiator to heat his bedroom. Your typical Tory expenses claimer claims the expense on extra pipes to heat his swimming pool. It’s a different level of expectation. At either level, upmarket or downmarket, the tacit claim, the one that doesn’t get written down, is: I need these things to live.

Another way of putting it is a sense of entitlement. With the Tories it’s ingrained. These comforts are what used to be delivered automatically if you were a member of the aristocracy. With the Labour MPs it’s aspirational. These comforts are what one ought to have if one is a member of the meritocracy. But either way, the deep-down assumption is that a certain standard of living should go with the job.

Well, there’s something to it. And I write this as I sit vibrating at my desk while the brick walls of my office are replaced with Portland stone so that I can get this place reclassified as a listed building and have the loft insulated by the National Trust. Though it’s sometimes easy for the media to forget it, most MPs really do need two places to live, one in the constituency and the other in the capital city, and it’s only simple justice that the London residence should be reasonably civilized.

In the bad old days, MPs from out of town crashed in a cheap hotel or festered in bedsits. Only an unreconstructed Maoist radical would say that they should go back to that. The belief that a politician must live like a student is one that only a student would hold. The trouble is that the whole business of running two homes tends to be more expensive than the salary easily allows, so there is an imperative to make up the difference with claims, and the imperative to make up the difference easily turns into a temptation to make up more than the difference, especially when there is a sense of entitlement.

Entitlement, like empowerment, is one of those words that can send you to sleep the moment it is uttered, and I myself have just had to plunge my face into a sink full of cold water in the bathroom which is currently being re-grouted by a plumber employed by my brother. But although entitlement is a tedious word, a sense of entitlement is a useful phrase, because it sounds like a dangerous thing to have, and indeed it is. The phrase cropped up almost as soon as the danger did, when executives in public service started expecting a large salary, with large perquisites to top it up, because, they claimed, that was what they would be worth on the free market. Claiming that, they started claiming everything, and the mood soon spread.

It spread fast, and spread far, not because most people are antisocial, but because they are too social. If everybody else is doing it, perhaps I should too. At full stretch, the sense of entitlement means that almost everybody takes what they can get. On a low level of ambition, the result is what the Americans call the Serpico scenario, when the honest cop is shunned by the other cops because he won’t take the free sandwich from the deli.

On a higher level of ambition we get newspaper proprietors who don’t pay taxes here because they can get away with paying less somewhere else. Some of the reporters currently pounding out stories about MPs avoiding thousands in tax are working for proprietors who avoid millions. It’s a continuing source of shame to journalists and one of the chief reasons for their bad diet. Lunch claim: two meat pasties and one individual fruit pie, five pounds fifty?

But it isn’t corruption, it’s just working the system. And the answer to it is to fix the system, by improving the regulations. There is no mystery to this principle, and no heresy: even if you believe that a free market is essential, you can’t believe that a free market is sufficient and still be a politician. If you did believe that, you would be a war lord. Regulating the free market is what a government does.

In liberal democratic societies, where the free market is regulated by government, there is a limit to corruption. What we are all asked to be amazed at right now is that there is such a thing as human dishonesty, but really we should be amazed at how it has been kept within bounds. In countries where no bounds are set, and corruption reigns unchecked, hardly anyone can afford to be honest. Yet even then, some are. It’s one of the great divisions in mankind, and one of the hardest to explain.

As it happens, I am privileged with the regular company of three honest women who are so socially responsible that they continue to sort the household rubbish into the colour-coded wheelie bins even though, the last I heard, the economic crisis has resulted in the recycling system grinding to a halt somewhere on its way to China. Just a second: to replacement of wheelie bin with broken wheel, fifteen pounds seventy pence.

I don’t think I have any special propensity towards larceny. Certainly if I have, it is overcome by fear, and I took great care early on, in my career as a freelance, to acquire an accountant whose whole aim in life is to make sure that the revenue service receives every penny of my taxes on time, with a urine specimen just in case they need it. But I am still struck by how these honest women are prone to what I see as an unrealistic view of mankind. They expect other people to be honest naturally, as they are, and as those three Labour MPs were who neglected to claim for everything they could. It is often the way with the saintly, however, that they have a restricted insight into the cupidity of the rest of us. Most of us, alas, have to be made virtuous. It follows that the most successful system of government frames its laws on the principle that whatever is not nailed down will soon walk.

At the moment the world’s most conspicuous and disheartening example is sub-Saharan Africa, where too many government officials export the economies of their countries to European banks because they think everyone else would if they could. But the terrible truth is that the full force of corruption is doing its dreadful work even among us. We, however, have the luxury of being able to call it crime, not politics. There is always a romantic dream of a version of theft that is not theft. But it doesn’t exist. The reality of the Mafia, for example, is that it built its international bank by stealing from the poor in Sicily. From the poor, not from the rich. The apparent scam of MP expenses looks bad, but the fact that it looks bad is the very thing that makes it not so bad. The outrage that we are encouraged to feel means that we live in a country where corruption is not the norm. If it were, some people on the front benches would be laughing at us right now, instead of sweating. If you want to order my book, incidentally, remember to get the title right. It’s called Take It Easy. But it isn’t called Taking It Is Easy, which is about another subject altogether.


I was quite pleased with my muscle-detensioning expert Fifi La Bonza Ph.D. because she embodied, as it were, a recurring theme in the history of parliamentary corruption. There is often a sexual element. MPs, and especially gay MPs, are touchingly apt to assume that the public purse might help them defray the cost of an emotional companion. Many of the politicians concerned, having been made, through fame, attractive for the first time in their lives, are unable to offset their new-found pulling power with the tempered knowledge of how thoroughly desire can warp judgement. I can quite imagine being carried away in a similar direction myself. I can see myself taking on a research assistant to advise me about the Middle East who knows nothing about the Middle East but looks good in a tailored dark suit and high heels — always a dynamite combo, particularly in women. What I can’t imagine is being an MP. Nobody would elect me, and if by some miracle I got the job, the grind of detail would quickly finish me off: like most writers, the nearest I ever got to a sense of responsibility was to find an organized way of doing what I liked. But during my brief Westminster career I would undoubtedly recompense myself for my dedication by taking everything that was coming to me.

Some MPs are paragons, but most of them take what’s on offer. It follows that what’s on offer needs to be strictly specified. After this scandal, which dragged on because it made good copy, both parties promised to clean up the system, so by the time the next election arrived it was no longer much of an issue. New rules ensured that what had been available to steal, which had always been chicken feed by the standards of major fraud, was still further reduced. MPs were obliged to find better ways than embezzlement for scoring a fast buck. As Tony Blair was already proving, the really big money lay in becoming Prime Minister and giving a lot of after-dinner speeches after you left office. In his own mind, the size of his comparatively honest latter-day earnings must have expunged the awkwardness of those earlier questions about flats in Bristol, etc. Honesty is the best policy, as long as the law gives you comfortable latitude on the subject of what honesty actually is. In that respect, it remained true that the newspaper proprietors had the politicians beaten. At the time, and still at the time I am writing this, the average newspaper tycoon earned, through dodged tax, more money in five minutes than any modern MP could fiddle in his entire career. Everybody knew about this scandal and nothing was ever done, because it was still believed — and perhaps it was true — that newspapers helped to decide elections. Tony Blair’s visit to Rupert Murdoch on Hayman Island was the beginning of his run for office. It might also have been the beginning of his fierce interest in the big money: a passion which I will believe desirable in a Labour politician on the day that I become a monkey’s uncle.

Though Rupert Murdoch had no direct grip on the BBC senior staff — not being elected by popular vote, they didn’t need to care about what his editorial writers might say — there was a limit, it was felt, to what could be said on air about him and his empire. Scripts mentioning his name would slow down on their way past the lawyers, especially if there was any suggestion that he might have helped to elect the government. What I have written here was about as far as you could go at the time, when nobody had an inkling that his empire might come crashing down. By now, of course, everybody is saying it was all inevitable. But back then, only a few short months ago, it all looked as evitable as anything could be. Murdoch had so much influence that he influenced the behaviour of honest men and women who, not being in his pay, should never have been in his thrall. But they were, mainly because the cost of fighting him in the courts would not have been worth it. What that said about the structure of British justice would be a separate subject, and one beyond my competence; although I’m bound to say that I liked the idea that Timothy Garton Ash put forward in his Guardian article on the day Murdoch’s bandwagon definitively shed its wheels. It was 15 July 2011, and Garton Ash said that the thing to do was to have a moratorium on the law for a short, specified period, and use it to rewrite the book on all the laws that touched upon the freedom of the press. With the benefit of his wide and deep knowledge of modern European history, Garton Ash was almost certainly referring to the period after the collapse of Nazi Germany when the Allied Control Commission rewrote the laws of the Western zones of Germany so that the police force — the key to the whole issue under the Weimar Republic — could never be suborned again. The debate about press interference in private lives is an eternal one. But there can be no debate about press interference with the police: if there is, the damage has already been done.