The Magazine

Paying for the Piper

A very British scandal wreaks havoc in the mother of parliaments.

Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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France is a famously volatile place. Talk of cake can trigger a revolution. The British are made of more phlegmatic stuff. Pastry alone would never do the trick. What it takes, it turns out, are a tea caddy, jellied eels, vitamin supplements, a sandwich cage (I have no idea), Scotch eggs (don't ask), dog food, a stainless steel dog bowl, a leather bed, six "leather-effect" dining chairs, a leather rocking chair, a leather sofa, a pink laptop, toilet seats (one of which was "glittery"), horse manure, Christmas tree decorations, potpourri candles, hanging baskets, an HD-ready 32-inch television, a 26-inch LCD television, a 40-inch flat-screen television, a 42-inch plasma television, light bulbs, people to change light bulbs, a pewter-finish radiator cover, mock Tudor beams, "imperial thermostatic" faucets, rubber gloves, electric gates, private security patrols, moat-clearing, stable lights, a five-foot-tall floating duck house, and a "Don Juan" bookcase. And, of course, a newspaper: in this case the Daily Telegraph gleefully telling appalled readers that these were among the many, many items they had been asked to buy for their Members of Parliament.

If you are wondering why exactly British taxpayers should be paying for the horse manure used to fertilize David Heathcoat-Amory's garden, the beginnings of an answer can be found in the fact that many MPs have to live in two places at once. They spend most of their working week in London attending parliament, but they must also (if they wish to be reelected) "nurse" their constituencies--something that often entails having a house there. This state of affairs was said to have forced (the verb can be debated) many MPs to maintain two homes, a burden somewhat alleviated by regulations permitting them to charge the nation for the cost of running that second home. It's when you come to define cost that the fun begins. Mortgage interest, absolutely. Utility bills, sure. Moat clearing, uh, maybe not. But so far as Parliament's permissive fees office was concerned, moat clearing was indeed fine.

That the full disclosure of this state of affairs could cause trouble was no great surprise. Fears that what has happened would happen explain the prolonged and desperate struggle to exempt MPs' expenses from the "right to know" provisions of the Freedom of Information Act passed by the Labour government in 2000, a struggle that eventually ended in failure early this year. Even then some critics worried that provisions to allow MPs a limited right to "edit" what would be released might be abused. Such concerns were rendered moot when copies of electronic records of MPs' expenses--detailed down to the last gloriously petty and last ingloriously questionable claim--were leaked to the Telegraph. That newspaper splashed the story in early May and has been drip-feeding an enraged and enthralled public with further revelations ever since. The resulting scandal has ruined careers, is helping destroy a government (which was doing a good job of destroying itself), and is wrecking the reputation of the mother of parliaments.

In some respects, this has been a very British scandal. The reimbursement policy that lies at its heart was the result of typically British fudge. Its extraordinary generosity (it is likely that only a few MPs will be shown to have broken the letter rather than the spirit of the rules) was an attempt to allow politicians to keep up financially with their professional peers in a prosperous era without going through the political awkwardness of voting themselves the sort of pay increase many thought that they deserved. (Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey would, doubtless, have approved.) The scandal's minutiae are also very British--that tea caddy and the obsession with gardening--and so is the delight with which Britons, never so deferential as Americans imagine, have witnessed the puncturing of formerly mighty reputations. Puncturing? Oh yes. Pause for a moment to digest the splendid news that the MP who claimed for that glittery toilet seat was John Reid, a former Labour home secretary previously known as a Glaswegian tough guy. Previously.

And Britain being Britain, a land where acute class sensibility is curse, art form, and blood sport, there has also been plenty for snobs and their reverse to savor. The snooty will have snickered at the thought of Labour's horny-handed (in all respects) John Prescott, a former deputy prime minister who has never been slow to talk up his proletarian credentials, putting mock Tudor beams on his house. Mock Tudor! Equally the painstaking efforts by the Conservative leader David Cameron (Eton and Oxford) to persuade voters that the Tories were no longer the toffs of old will not have been helped by the fact that it was a member of his team who needed help with his moat.

And Britain being Britain, journalists have been unable to resist dredging up Macaulay's well-worn observation that there is "no spectacle more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality," and as always they have a point. Some of the criticism has been overwrought and unfair, an unintended consequence of a system that compelled MPs to submit details of almost every claim, however trivial, a system that could never have made them look good, but, for all its faults, is infinitely preferable to, say, the opacity of the much more corrupt procedures for "reimbursement" of expenses that have prevailed (at least up until now) in the EU's Potemkin parliament.

All the same, those claims were made, and they are an indication that the ideal of fair play that once underpinned the UK's once largely unwritten constitutional arrangements is dying. The temptation to see the current furor as a simple explosion of jealous rage (although that emotion has undoubtedly played its part), vaguely reminiscent of the shameful, hysterical spasm of fury and grief that followed the death of Princess Diana, should be resisted. A better comparison would be with the storm over congressional overdrafts that made so much news over here in the early 1990s. Seen in isolation, that row was overdone; seen in the context of decades of one-party control of the House of Representatives, it was long overdue.

Not all MPs were at the trough. Far from it. Nevertheless, this scandal has added further tarnish to the reputation of the political class as a whole, a class already widely perceived as greedy, venal and, in the midst of an economic crisis that may yet lead to a cap-in-hand approach to the IMF, incompetent. Equally, it's worth adding that claims by MPs that the investigation of their expenses has been overly intrusive might be more sympathetically received had those same MPs not spent so long micromanaging, sometimes very punitively, their fellow citizens.

What are Britons supposed to make of Alistair Darling, the finance minister who subjects them to a bewildering, fiercely enforced range of taxes, yet appeared to feel no qualms about sticking them with bills he received from his personal tax advisers? And what are Britons to make of those MPs who "flipped" the designation of "second homes" (yes, there were sometimes more than one) for tax and other purposes, or worse still, the handful of MPs who appeared to have sought reimbursement for "phantom" mortgages?
Under the circumstances, to criticize the reimbursement of the embattled Gordon Brown, the country's flailing, faltering prime minister, for the cost of the bagpiper he retained to play at a ceremony for veterans in a Scottish church may even seem a touch harsh. Harsh, but oddly, poetically appropriate: Those who paid for the piper may--finally--be calling the tune.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.