With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.
I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?
The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.
So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldnâ€™t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was â€œvery carefulâ€ and had always taken â€œsatisfactionâ€ in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.
The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?
When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?
In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.
The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.
I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.
As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.
My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.