Sunday, 6 June 2010

Expenses Spared…

I’ve crossed a bit of a mental rubicon on the issue of MPs expenses following the sad resignation of David Laws and the Telegraph’s attack on his successor, Danny Alexander.

What started perhaps as a genuine attempt to seek out doubtful practices among some MPs evolved not only into an anti-politician and anti-politics witch-hunt but also became a political weapon used by the Telegraph against both non-Conservatives and those Tories not in the mould of the followers of David Cameron.

The roots of the expenses scandal lie in the cultural response to the onset of recession and the ending of the long-lasting economic boom of the 90s and 2000s. The response to the end of plenty has been an outbreak of neo-puritanism with venomous attacks on the pay of Council officers and other public servants and an almost pathological desire to find “waste” with public money. This has seen the growth of odious groups such as the Taxpayers Alliance whose sole raison d'être seems to be a sanctimonious approach to how public money is spent.

We all bought in, individually and collectively, to the economic culture and zeitgeist of the good times. Cheap food, cheap fuel, cheap money and rising house prices created a culture in which excess was not to be ashamed of and there was a sense of well-being and a genuine belief that it would and could go on for ever. Those who saw claim they saw it all coming were memorable only for their silence and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, insight is more valuable than hindsight.

Politicians were part of this economic culture too and no one questioned the process of expenses at the time. To be fair, the vast majority of MPs were not actually breaking laws but doing what many other people would do and have done in these situations – bend the rules and utilise the system to their own advantage. Being an MP shouldn’t be a job for the independently wealthy. It’s a job with long hours, lots of travelling and unless you live in a safe seat, precious little job security.

Yet the sky has fallen in and now the neo-puritans want their pound of flesh. The release of MP expenses at a time of falling stocks and shares and huge instability and uncertainty was guaranteed to produce a torrent of vitriolic responses. I’m sure the Telegraph believed its moralising attitude would work to the advantage of the Conservatives as day after day seemed to be attacks on mainly Labour MPs.

Yes, let’s have a sensible and transparent system for MPs to obtain the support they need to do their job and let’s crack down and deal strongly with obvious criminality but the current witch-hunt has done far more harm than good. Democracy is not well served by a Parliament of politically and financially emasculated saints more frightened of the media than their electorate. We must also create every opportunity for anyone and everyone to seek to become an MP.

The David Laws case has shown the power of the witch-hunt and the damage such an attitude can do. A man, accepted by all (including his opponents) as intelligent and the best man for the job has been hounded from his job and his private life laid bare for an amount of money which, in contrast to the deficit he was tasked with tackling, was pitifully insignificant.

It’s time to end the moralising, the self-righteous sanctimonious holier-than-thou witch-hunt and judge our politicians on how they run the country and the governance they provide not on what expenses they claim. It’s time to start moving the economic culture on and looking at how the 2010s are going to be for us all not just the wealthy, the needy and the greedy.

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