Sunday, May 17, 2009

This time it's personal

I haven't really known what to make of the MPs' expenses scandal. Squalid, certainly, but significant? What has irritated me most is the whining of the privileged as they justify their actions - 'it is the system' and 'everything is in accordance with the rules' - as if rules and systems absolved the need for ethics and moral judgement. Then this happened.
MP David Chaytor has been suspended by the Parliamentary Labour Party amid allegations he claimed money for a mortgage he had already paid off.

He is the second Labour MP to be suspended and the latest from both main parties to face investigation amid continuing controversy over expenses.

The Daily Telegraph says the Bury North MP took nearly £13,000 for the flat in London after it was paid off in 2004.
I worked with David for several years in adult education in Manchester. We kept in touch and I visited him for a drink in the House of Commons just after he was elected. Though we haven't been in contact for a few years, I always liked David and considered him an able and principled man of the left.

His integrity was tested early. When, in 1997, the new Labour government decided to stick to the spending limits of the outgoing Tory administration it committed itself to policies that it had vehemently opposed only months earlier. The most egregious of these was a cut in benefit payable to single parents. The squirming sophistry as MPs tried to justify the unjustifiable was dispiriting to say the least. To his enduring credit, David was one of the few who rebelled and voted against the proposal. He remained a frequent rebel, holding to his principles when so many others caved in.

And now there is this, and I genuinely don't know what to think. Was it a "mistake" as he claimed? Does the defence of the living standards of the poor outweigh the abuse of expenses? Is it possible to be a good representative even whilst maximising your own personal benefit? However, perhaps Bakunin got it right:
Dependent on popular election, they are at first distinguished from the mass of the citizens only by the very qualities which recommended them to their choice and are naturally, the most devoted and useful of all. They do not yet assume to themselves any privilege, any particular right, except that of exercising, insofar as the people wish it, the special functions with which they have been charged ... Can this equality be long maintained? ...

Nothing is more dangerous for man's private morality than the habit of command. The best man, the most intelligent, disinterested, generous, pure, will infallibly and always be spoiled at this trade. Two sentiments inherent in power never fail to produce this demoralisation; they are: contempt for the masses and the overestimation of one's own merits ...

Is there not something in all that to make a man lose his head and his heart as well, and become mad with pride? It is thus that power and the habit of command become for even the most intelligent and virtuous men, a source of aberration, both intellectual and moral.


Dr Hiding Pup said...

Ah, the big mistakes that have been made seem to revolve around getting caught with the hand in the cookie jar. It's a small cookie jar though compared to, say, a barrage of cruise missles or, closer to home, Jonathan Ross's salary. Almost everyone fiddles expenses - think of all the personal calls/printing/photocopying that occurs at a university's expense, or all the beyond-fair use photocopying for student-handouts and the screening of movies that are done without payment to the relevant parties.

Technomist said...

Was it a "mistake" as he claimed? Not one of these criminals made an 'error' which was not in their personal favour.