Four years ago I was in a windowless room within the parliamentary estate. I was working in David Cameron’s opposition office at the time and a number of Tory political advisers had been corralled into said room to go line-by-line, page-by-page through the expenses forms for all Tory MPs. This was in the middle of the corrosive drip-dripping of expenses stories, and British politics had hit its nadir.
Since then I’ve spent a lot of time living and working in SE Asia, which has enabled me to peer at the Westminster ant farm with a bit more perspective. On my last visit back to SW1, just over a month ago, I found it gripped by the Mercer and Yeo lobbying scandals. Disproportionality so, I thought.
The existence of the stings, the absence of real lobbyists, the unrestricted publicity, the public opprobrium, the politicians scrambling for action – all these were signs of a healthy democracy, not a diseased one. Reaction to the cure was mistaken for the ailment that was being expunged. Inevitably, even if this could be considered a victory for our political system, it was yet another defeat for public faith in it (an Ipsos-Mori poll in the aftermath found that merely one in five Brits believe that MPs generally tell the truth).
So it is with Ipsa’s recommendations this week – solid process, terrible PR. This wasn’t a case of MPs dreaming up a huge salary for themselves during austere times. It was proposed by an organisation most of them have come to hate, as part of a wider package that barely increases their overall remuneration, certainly not to the levels seen in other parts of Europe. Yet sections of the media and public are mustering up a level of ire that in most other countries would only be reserved for a scandal involving sex and several zeros – not what is effectively a restructuring by parliament’s HR dept.
An important bit of context has been absent from the sometimes shrill coverage of MPs’ pay. It’s this: British politicians are amongst the most honest and hard-working in the world. Hop on an easyJet to Spain and you’re in a place where corruption is second only to unemployment in the public’s concerns – you can’t imagine it being in the top twenty in the UK. That is not to say that this salary increase should be considered a deserved reward for a job well done. But neither should this review be used as some kind of punishment beating for bad behaviour, however therapeutic that may be.
Of course, if we get complacent about the little things, then bigger things could follow – the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing our democracy. We’re good at flagellating our politicians to keep them in check. Britain’s acute sense of fairness combined with its lack of deference is one its greatest traits. I’m just starting to worry that we enjoy the act of flagellation too much.
Samuel Coates is a political writer and consultant.
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