Friday, 15 May 2009

hang 'em high

I caught a brief part of Question Time on BBC1 last night and it was very disturbing. No surprise that the focus of the questions was about MPs' expenses and there was real anger and resentment on the airwaves. The two unfortunate MPs in the stocks for the few minutes I watched were Ming Campbell and Margaret Becket both of whom I have always considered to be parliamentarians of the highest calibre. What was so unsettling was the audience doing a good impression of an angry mob as they harried and heckled the speakers before they had the opportunity to give their answers and explanations. The audience was egged on by David Dimbleby in what I considered to be one of his poorest performances. I had this image in my mind of a scene from an old cowboy film in which the good townsfolk, outraged at some perceived crime, storm the sheriff's office and drag the suspected criminal out to be strung up without a trial. In the end I turned the T.V. off because it was so unpleasant.

There is no doubt that something rotten has been going on in parliament and the speed with which MPs have been whipping out their cheque books to repay some of their expenses is clear evidence of that. The problems range from the sort of stupid oversight that all of us can be guilty of, through to acts of what appear to be fraud and deception. The Daily Telegraph, which published the scoop, is squeezing every last ounce of juice from the story as it seeks to turn what looks like being a considerable outlay on purchasing the information into profit and raised circulation figures.

However, it is also clear that many innocent MPs are being caught up in the maelstrom that has descended on Westminster. Over the coming months they may be able to demonstrate how their expenses were legitimately and reasonably claimed but at the moment no-one or at least very few people seem to be listening. MPs have not had the opportunity to present all the facts of their individual cases, nor to challenge details that have been inaccurately or wrongly reported. The public, led by the press and increasingly hysterical broadcasters, are baying for blood. Don’t get me wrong, I am really angry about some of what seems to have gone on and can understand how others are feeling, but when I’m angry I know I need to be very careful.

The whole sorry saga reminds me of the incident recorded in John’s Gospel 8:1-11 where a group of the ‘righteous’ bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and demand that he pass judgement on her. The response of Jesus is very telling; he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. The evangelist doesn’t record what Jesus wrote although many have speculated; only that he didn’t immediately respond with a pronouncement. Rowan Williams in Writing in the Dust, a short reflection following the September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States, suggests that Jesus is creating a pause, a breathing space, to consider and reflect rather than to immediately respond in a way that will exacerbate the situation.

I can’t help feeling that what we need now in the present crisis over MPs' expenses is a period of calm reflection. Time to allow the full facts to be gathered, not leaked out drip by drip in a way that can neither be checked nor challenged. Time to develop an appropriate means of examining and holding to account those who have done wrong and exonerating those who have done nothing wrong. Time to reflect on what we really expect from those who serve in public office. Time to ask what we are prepared to pay our politicians to ensure we encourage those best equipped to govern. Time to reflect on the wider damage being caused to the body politic and society in general. Time to consider the culture of cynicism that now pervades the way the media handles politics and the motives behind that cynicism. Time to think about the impact on politics in the future as polls already indicate a turn towards the smaller and in some cases extreme political parties.

Perhaps the best response we can make to the scandal over MPs' expenses is to follow the example of Jesus and take time out to write in the dust.


Frances said...

I absolutely agree! This is the best blog post that I've read on this subject so far.

R Krishnan said...

well written good effort

Matt Wardman said...

Well yes ... and no.

If there is one thing that is absolutely clear it is that the House Authorities, Speaker and a majority of MPs had no intention whatsoever of publishing all the information to enable an objective assessment or "calmly reflective" assessment to be made. The intention has been to hide the information from the public.

This has been pursued through proper channels (FoI, Information Tribunal, Courts) since 2005 and the reaction has been repeated blocks, obfuscation and defiance even of High Court decisions - there are perhaps more than 20 separate attempts at keeping the information secret. In that time the "proper approaches through proper channels" got almost nowhere.

Even when receipt publication was planned, addresses were to be redacted, so the worst excesses - address migration to reuse sets of expenses multiple times - would be hidden.

See Heather Brooke's article today, for example:

So my sympathy is strictly limited, and I think innocent MPs will vindicate themselves, and over say 1-2 months we will get a more balanced impression.

The repeated attempts at secrecy made it clear that an earthquake was necessary to demolish the bunker, and an earthquake is what has happened. Nothing less would achieve what was necessary.

If only it could have been done in the way you suggest. That path was available for almost 5 years, and rejected every step of the way by the Commons Authorities. Unfortunately it was a coconut and it did need a sledgehammer to crack it.

Now the job is to rebuild from the ruins.

I don't think that people will turn to extreme parties, but we may have a more thoroughly 3 party politics for a few years.

Matt Wardman said...

My previous comment was a bit more repetitive than intended, but I think it makes the right points.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for the comments.

I accept the point you make about MPs fighting tooth and nail to keep their expenses secret and yes they have brought this upon themselves as a result.

However, there is now a witch hunt mentality rampant, your own site's coverage of Twitter & Question Time makes that clear, and that usually means that the innocent get caught up with the guilty. It also means that we may be misdirected over some of the more important issues.

I think Heather Brooke is to be congratulated for her tenacity in pursuing the issue. It is sad that in the end she was scooped by a newspaper which appears to have got the information by questionable (at best) means.

Now that it is out in the open surely the best way of dealing with matters is through a properly constituted process, not the hair shirt dutch auction taking place between the party leaders responding to the latest press revelations.

I am not so sure the innocent will be vindicated over time. We are very good at remembering the dirt and missing the exonerations. MPs do have legitimate expenses and everyone seems to be getting tarred with the same brush, again I think Question Time illustrated that.

Unfortunately, I think the evidence is already mounting that the main parties will be given a good kicking at the Euro elections and that opens the way for some of the more extreme parties. The BNP in particular is playing this issue for all its worth in East London and not without success; they are much more organised than many think.

I agree the job is to rebuild from the ruins; the question is how?

Matt Wardman said...

Coming back a few days later.

Thanks for your response Phil.

In my own region - East Midlands - it is unlikely that the BNP will get an MEP, partly due to the bar having been raised by a reduction from 6 to 5 MEPs, even though we are something of a BNP hot spot.

My feeling is that there will be a generalised rage for several weeks, and that MPs *will* have the chance to put their own cases to their constituents.

I've even found several excellent MPs who I didn't know about.

The way ahead is to be thinking more deeply about our politics, and especially the process. I have an item looking at the hard costs of providing publicly owned accommodation in London - which I delayed until Friday after the Speaker promised to stand down yesterday.

For those in the churches and community organisations, I think setting up local hustings and opportunities for debate is key - to provide forums.

I'd suggest that we are in a process that will start with local Westminster reforms now, then continue with a more fundamental debate until the next Election.

As far as I can see, the protest vote is going mainly to UKIP and the Greens rather than the BNP, unless people are lying about their intentions.

In any case, it is a watershed that - imho anyway - may be of an 1832 significance.

I think we are now beginning to see properly constituted processes, both in the Parties and in Parliament; I'd agree that that must be good.

I can

I think we do need a good old clear out, and that