Britain seems almost to enjoy revelling in bouts of national hysteria that appear cataclysmic for a time, but quickly fade away. Some 12 years ago, it was the death of Princess Diana that led to extraordinary expressions of public grief and dire criticism of the royal family.
Now, in a very different setting, Britain – where I have been for the past week – is wallowing in a daily drip-by-drip exposure by The Daily Telegraph of members of parliament’s expenses to pay for all sorts of homely things from house conversions, mortgages (sometimes for houses already sold), hi fi equipment, tuning a piano, and a baby’s cot, to gardeners, servicing a swimming pool, a girl friend/assistant’s “life improving” classes, potted garden plants, Remembrance Day wreaths, and maintaining a moat (as in water round your castle) and so on.
Senior ministers have resigned from the government because of the revelations, and Britain seems to believe it is in the middle of a constitutional crisis. That is of course partly because support for the current Labour government is eroding fast, heightening the sense of crisis, and because the expenses revelations have hit all political parties.
In 1997, after Diana’s death, it was the monarchy that people said would have to change – and it has, but only a very little. Now people are talking about changing the way that parliament operates and is controlled – as if that would stop MPs claiming as much as possible on expenses!
There are even suggestions that Britain needs to tidy up its act with a written constitution instead of running its affairs on a semi-informal basis.
The prime minister – yes it’s still Gordon Brown (who charged for his brother to clean his private flat) – is himself suggesting constitutional reform, plus a more immediately practical “parliamentary standards authority”. He has been followed by other party leaders, David Cameron (Conservatives) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats), who want to make things look different by introducing fixed-term periods for parliaments, removing a prime minister’s right to choose the timing of a general election. (The same idea is often raised in India which, post-colonially, follows the British parliamentary model).
As Ted Vallance, a history academic, points out in the (recently much duller) New Statesman, that idea has been around since the 17th century when efforts were made to rein in Charles the First. “The current debate on parliamentary reform reveals little more than a political class desperate to save its own skin,” Vallance writes, under the heading Burning down the House. “Bereft of genuinely innovative ideas, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are ransacking the ideological storehouse of British history”.
The party leaders are themselves as guilty as ordinary MPs, and seemingly have no practical solution to offer on how to tighten the system. So they are heading for dramatic constitutional and parliamentary reforms which, while maybe worthwhile issues for long-term debate, are currently just useful time-consuming red herrings.
Cameron, desperate to make political capital ahead of a general election due next year, has called for “a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power” (until, of course he gets hold of that power).
The MPs deserve some sympathy, or at least understanding, brazenly corrupt though some certainly have been. They are only paid just under £70,000 a year (Rupees 52 lakhs or $115,000). This is, of course, enormously more than Indian MPs are paid, but it is not much after tax for a family, especially in London – and maybe with a second home in a possibly far-away constituency,
Jonathan Raban, a journalist, points out in the London Review of Books that MPs have been operating under the guidance and jurisdiction of officials in the House of Commons Fees Office. His article, headed Trouble at the Fees Office, explains that MPs have an “additional costs allowance” of up to £23,083 a year, which they can claim by presenting bills for various expenses:
“The safest way of getting it (the money) is to dump sheaves of bills at the Fees Office to prove that you’ve spent far more than the amount of the allowance and are therefore entitled to it in its entirety. Given the thicket of ambiguous rules and regulations set out in The Green Book: A Guide to Members’ Allowances, it’s not surprising that most MPs seem to have followed the example of Margaret Beckett (a senior Labour minister sacked in the last few days by Brown), who confessed: ‘I just grabbed together the relevant things and bunged them into the Fees Office and left it to them to sort it out.’ ”
Haven’t we all done that to claim expenses? It’s what I do every year when I send all sorts of bills to my tax accountant, leaving him to decide whether, for example, my recent air fare to London can be counted against tax.
British media at fault
The British media has behaved appallingly and is substantially responsible for the perceived crisis. The Telegraph, which received the details in a leaked package weeks ago, has spread out its revelations over more than a month instead of packaging them over a few days. This has built up a feeding frenzy with a public that loves to despise those in authority – and, which understandably, doesn’t think much of the often self-serving people who rule the country.
Other newspapers, and the tv channels, which usually don’t like picking up their rivals’ scoops have joined the frenzy, with scarcely anyone standing back and putting the issues in perspective, or explaining how the excesses have come about.
So, now I’m back in Delhi, let’s try to do that. The Telegraph disclosed on Wednesday that Shahid Malik, the communities minister, simultaneously charged in his applications for the costs of office space in both his constituency and London home – claiming “more than £6,500” (just under five lakhs of rupees).
As Indian MPs (and those who finance them) would testify, that’s not serious corruption by anyone’s standards. It certainly shows that the system of MPs’ allowances needs to be tightened – and some MPs may indeed deserve to be criminally charged for excesses.
But, as someone said on a British tv chat show recently, “the MPs have behaved more like idiots than scoundrels” – and that surely should not be regarded as a constitution-changing political crisis.