Iran is in a turmoil that was inconceivable even a month ago. Today Morgan Tsvangirai, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, was shouted down at Southwark Cathedral whilst urging expatriates to return to their homeland despite a lack of reassurance about their personal safety or prospects for the rule of law. In just over one week I will be back in Kazakhstan for a global inter-religious congress – a country that has moved in under two decades from being a disastrous republic of the Soviet Union into a successful and competitive world player – where admiration for British democracy might be a little tempered by the goings-on at Westminster in recent weeks. And the joyful humiliation of MPs continues in the UK, watched with incredulity from outside and embarrassment from within.
And here I am, at my desk, with Bruce Cockburn angrily singing his critique of western political and militarysupport for dodgy Central American regimes in the 1980s: They call it democracy.
Apparently, everybody in the UK is furiously angry with our profligate, dishonest and greedy politicians. That might be true – in the same way that everybody in the UK is a ‘loyal subject’ of Her Majesty. Maybe I just mix in the wrong circles (ordinary people in ordinary places – this morning with a group made up largely but not exclusively of pensioners), but I don’t see the anger we are being told we are feeling. I do hear expressions of wishing we could move on and wondering about who is doing the really important political stuff at Westminster while the feeding frenzy continues.
Now, I realise that I will be told (very firmly and without hint of possible contradiction) that I am out of step with the public mood. Again, that might be true – but who says? And how would they know? If I am out of step with the ‘public mood’, then I am not going to apologise. I hadn’t realised until recently that the ‘public mood’ was the ultimate arbiter of morality and public truth – that to dissent from the ‘public mood’ was to be, by definition, wrong and suspect.
The ‘public moood’ would have lynched suspected paedophiles in Portsmouth a couple of years ago. The ‘public mood’ voted Hitler into power in the 1930s. The ‘public mood’ is probably the least trustworthy guide to moral decision-making that could possibly be found. Ask a random sample of the public if they are angry with MPs and there is little alternative but to concur; ask what people think or feel about MPs and the answer might be a little bit more nuanced.
I am worried about all this, not because I think MPs have behaved well or deserve special treatment outside of normal financial ethics. Abuses of expenses are indefensible – but so is inaccurate and sensational pillorying of particular MPs without adequate explanation of the criteria being cited. For example, do we really expect to be well served by MPs without providing them with office back-up (PA, secretary, stationery, phones, etc)? Yet when these figures are deducted from some of the huge numbers featuring in reports, the figures look less offensive. I object to being told that an MP is ‘a scandal’ for claiming half a million pounds in ‘expenses’ over the last five years when the charge is made in complete ignorance of what is needed by way of office support for our elected representatives to do their job. This is mere sensationalism.
I said I was worried. I am. I am worried about the effects of all this on the sort of people who might now put themselves forward for public office. (There is an awful lot of smug self-righteousness around in propsective parliamentary candidates right now.) Are we going to get the best quality of people (of ability and integrity) to put themselves forward for an office that will evoke scorn, suspicion and potential humiliation?
Is now the time for MPs to have their expenses scrutinised by an independent body, be asked to repay any anomalies, commit to investigation by the police any criminal activity – and then let Parliament get back to doing what we need it to do: govern the country and have MPs scrutinising legislation rather than scrutinising their expenses sheets? Hasn’t the feeding frenzy now gone far enough?
Or is it just easier to be part of the baying mob, directing our imputed ‘anger’ at someone else, prolonging the embarrassment of ‘privileged’ people and ignoring the consequences to our democracy and its institutions?
Oh, and by the way, is there not something ‘morally dubious’ about my local ‘newspaper’, The Croydon Advertiser, standing on its moral superiority in relation to MPs while taking advertising money from pimps engaged in trafficking women and exploiting them for sex? Just asking…