Saturday, 16 May 2009


If I still cannot find it in me to feel overwhelming moral outrage because of MP's expenses it isn't because I think fiddling expenses is fine. It isn't. It is for three reasons.

1.) Given any set of rules people adapt themselves to it in a general fashion and think no more about it. Hence the Menzies Campbell response on Question Time, that he did as he did and never stood far enough away to examine the moral status of his claim until it was brought home to him. I don't think most people 'plot' to put smaller items here or there. Mostly they are too busy with other things. Furthermore, I don't think they regard themselves as dishonest in any way. They do what has been done, what goes on being done, what is within the rules and within the realms of habit. It's a kind of anaesthesia. I suspect much of corruption is a form of anaesthesia and that what we regard as corruption in far away places would not immediately strike the local culprits or indeed their victims much of the time as corruption. Then something happens. People emerge from anaesthesia into full consciousness. It's as well this happens, but it's not a time for stringing people up. Apart from those who actually defraud the state of course. They should be charged with a criminal offence. The rest should be severely lectured, and, if their constituents fancy, be deselected and left to learn. Venial sins for the most part. The rest of the time they are either good constituency MPs or they are not.

2.)The sight of moral outrage, the prospect of a feeding frenzy, the sound of the mob baying for heads, is revolting, always hypocritical and terminally malicious. Much of the outrage in ordinary people is displaced frustration and that is understandable but it soon becomes what people think of as justified rage. Fair enough. We are right to feel angry about injustice. We should be angered by it. But the feeling of self-righteousness is one of the most repulsive human conditions and I thoroughly distrust it. This is despite of any political allegiance. It often leaves a worse stink than the original crime which is often petty though cumulative, and spills a great deal more blood.

3.) The role of the press is never innocent. They don't expose bad practice purely for love of justice. They do it to sell papers. Daily. You can't blame them for wanting to sell papers, but it's best to keep that in mind. Press outrage is always tinged with the deepest cynicism. Whistleblowers are good. Exposure is good. But listen to the sound of the voice shaking with outrage and note the well-worn tropes and trigger words.

Just notes for myself, if you like. There is, I think, a serious danger that thorough disillusion with proper politics will benefit only the vicious and the fundamentally crooked. I am damned well going to vote on whatever principles I have. I will never not vote.

As for the rest, civilised comments are welcome, should anyone wish to comment (though I have no intention of living by or for comment and will carry on writing this blog for the sheer delight of it, as long as the delight lasts) the rest can bugger off. Filthy ad hominem comments will be chewed and spat out into the outer darkness with an extra relish.


Mark Granier said...

"The sight of moral outrage, the prospect of a feeding frenzy, the sound of the mob baying for heads, is revolting, always hypocritical and terminally malicious."

I'm with you there. As Les Murray put it (in a very different context): "Nothing a mob does is clean."

James Hamilton said...

As Mark said, and glad you revisited it.

Tuebrook Tart said...

But the disturbing thing about seeing the casual - and collective -consumerism of our MPs is how much it reveals the deep divide in our society. An absolute lack of awareness of the material (and other forms) of poverty that exist. The poor who in large numbers are also disengaged from democracy - are they effectively disenfranchised? I want to encourage people to recognise that the right to vote is not only a human right - but a civil responsibility. It's difficult to do this against the persistent background hum of outraged media. And can't we ask that we all behave a little better?

George S said...

That's very well put, TT. I don't know how far our MPs are aware of the extent or nature of material - and other - poverty, and if they are aware, how much they think it has to do with them. I would hope they - particularly Labour MPs - are aware and that their sense of social justice is more highly developed, but as you say there is a divide between representatives and those whom they supposedly represent.

It might be that the divide is harder to see because the deprived are fragmented, and because the blessings of commercial white-goods serves as an opiate for them so they are less visible. When people hardly know their neighbours; when mobility becomes a permanent feature of our lives, it becomes harder to conceive of communal feeling, except as an abstraction.

I am not much of a communal creature myself - partly through weight of work, but partly through temperamental inclination. I can imagine being one but only at the cost of abandoning all that has been central to my life: solitude, a desk, the books, the priorities. Losing that may be a price worth paying but I doubt I'll pay it now. When I was younger I did seriously toy with the idea. In the old days they would have called such an option "a life of service".

I rather hope that those who choose to represent others have something of that communal, vocational feeling, the sense of "a life of service". I rather like the idea of having a big London hotel reserved for them as single or family apartments.

I don't think they are all on the make. I think being an MP can turn out to be a very short career. I think it does involve some idea of service, that it means bearing considerable responsibility and having to work harder than most in ordinary 9-5 jobs. I also think that many who criticise them earn a great deal more for less and are not necessarily better with their own expenses.

I think e.e.cummings (I think it was him) was wrong when he said - I quote from memory - that "A politician is an arse on which everyone has sat except a man".

Politics, on the scale we have it, needs politicians, whose job is to politick for the benefit of all, but chiefly for the benefit of those who most need such benefits.

There are alternatives in anarchy, in small-scale referendums or hand-voting communes, to which I am sympathetic, but what I have actually seen or known of such - I mean fundamentalist Christian sects - they are small, brutal, bullying theocracies (the leader being God's proxy). It may be possible to fix it otherwise, but I remain to be convinced.

Tuebrook Tart said...

We need our wonderful writers as much as we need decent politicians - and I wouldn't want to see our artists having to sacrifice their solitude and work for the greater good. That way the gulags.

But these feel like dangerous times - especially where I live. I haven't got it in me either temperamentally or in terms of talent to serve people as a representative - I try and do what I can in my local community but there are so many who are alienated and cynical about our democracy. I want to educate my 5 children in the responsibilities of suffrage and help them to understand what a precious gift it is to live in a democracy - even one so flawed as ours. Just not sure how to explain to them about the current news. It sounds feeble to say petty corruption is part of human nature - however true. I want them to understand that having books and the right to vote are both essential things.

Billy C said...

It's a mess for sure, but at some point, we, the electorate, have to think carefully about what we do. I've thought about it. I could cast a protest vote: I've been looking at UKIP and the Greens. I've decided I shall vote Labour because socialism is inherent in what I am. Yes, many of those who represent my views have transgressed and been downright stupid and greedy. Surprise, surprise, if I look back at my own life, I can see times when I've been guilty of those 'offences' too. I refuse to be swayed by the feeding frenzy and most important of all, my vote is too important to be cast on something I don't believe in. As bad as the situation is, some of us have to retain a semblance of normality. My greatest fear is that the less thinking will vote BNP as a protest vote. I refuse to be part of that scenario: that 'scenario' being protest voting which is bound to contain votes for that vile bunch of scum. I want no part of that.

Mark Elt said...

I see the point you're making George but I disagree with point one for the fact that MPs have done all in their power to cover up what they have been doing. Far from being anaesthetised, I believe they knew very well it was unjustifiable but saw it as part of their income any way.
I think the mob outrage is justified to some extent because people will contrast what happens to MPs with their own experience of workplaces, councils and tax offices.
We now face what is essentially a constitutional crisis because MPs have viewed themselves as an elite, subject to different controls, laws and morals to the rest of the population. They are all to some degree culpable because I don't recall any of them mounting a serious objection to the system and the widespread abuses that have been exposed.
I also think you are wrong to talk about it as an issue of expenses. In the very worst cases it has been nothing short of fraud, all the worse for carrying the rubber stamp of the fees office.

George S said...

Yes, Mark, to some extent and to some degree, as you say. The cover-up is pretty dreadful but I suspect most MPs just marched the way the whips told them to. We have yet to find out how many were taking serious advantage of the expenses system. If it stays at the current number that leaves a great majority who didn't. In the matter of such proportions I don't think the political class would be that different from the managerial class generally. Maybe from any other class. And they earn less than top managers do. But I could be very wrong. Nevertheless my instinct runs against it.

I am worried by that potential constitutional crisis, especially at this moment - the worst moment to choose.

dana said...

Garrison Keillor in Salon today with a nice summary.

word verification: gases

George S said...

Keillor does a nice line in droll and bemused. Petty grifting is about the size of some of it. Not quite in Bernie Madoff league but up the same narrow alleyway.

I don't like them it is true. I am not sure how many grifted, grift or intended to grift. But see brief post upcoming / pending (or whatever word means 'about to be written').