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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.