As if the daily revelations about MPs expenses weren’t enough, the way Gordon Brown and David Cameron have chosen to handle the affair guarantees it will have many more downhill twists. Running scared of the media and seeking political advantage, the leaders have tried to appear uncompromising in their condemnation of MPs accused of misdemeanours, and in their determination to act against wrong-doers.
In the face of what feels increasingly like a lynch mob public mentality, perhaps the leaders had no choice. But their tactics have ensured this story will move into a second and equally uncomfortable phase. This is when the Parties have to explain where and why they are drawing the lines between forgivable misjudgements, unforgivable extravagance or downright fiddling.
As we heard on the Today programme this morning, journalists will be on the look out for the line being drawn less on the basis of the acts committed than on the dispensability of the MP. Moral philosophers may want to think about media training; they will be in great demand to explain why a duck pond is intrinsically more objectionable that a plasma TV or top of the range soft furnishings.
The expenses story was bound to be hugely damaging and to say it could have been handled better is not to suggest it would, or should, have been an easy ride for MPs. But missing has been any narrative through which to confront MPs’ behaviour while resisting the myth that all Parliamentarians are greedy chancers who only ever got into politics to make a fast buck.
As ‘the only person in Britain still defending MPs’ I have previously offered one way of framing the scandal: over broadly the same period as the expenses system has taken up the slack between politicians’ and the public’s view of what our elected representatives are worth, MPs have seen a significant increase in their constituency workload. One measure is their expanding mailbag; MPs get three or four times as many letters (or e-mails) now as a generations ago. The expectations we place on MPs, - for example that each of them staff a full time local office and that each returns every week without fail to their constituency (Roy Jenkins used to go once a month to hold a surgery in the station hotel before heading back to town) - have changed without being understood or discussed, just as has the allowances system. We now need an open and thoughtful debate about what we want from MPs and what it is right to pay and reimburse them.
If our leaders had promoted understanding a bit more and condemnation a bit less they might have been able to draw on a distinction recently described by Michael Sandel. The renowned political philosopher was giving the first of his Reith lectures, recorded on Monday night and due for transmission in June. Sandel is concerned about how we frame public obligations, and particularly the way the criterion of economic efficiency trumps everything. He thinks this risks undermining vital social norms and replacing democratic discourse with crude cost benefit calculation His lecture cited an example beloved of behavioural economists; the Israeli nursery school which sought to stop parents picking up their children late by fining them. The unintended consequence was that many parents saw the fine as a fee and thus felt justified in coming even later.
The Professor offered his own example of this process. He used, he told us, to think of the extra money he had to pay Blockbusters when he returned DVDs late as a fine and something about which he ought to feel slightly guilty. But both he and the shop now saw the extra change as a fee with his decision to hold the DVD for a few extra days as being morally neutral.
This provides a clue as to why long standing MPs with an unblemished record of public service have come to behave like money-grubbing tricksters. The fatal ambiguity about the second home allowance was whether it was a form of compensation (something to which MPs were entitled as long as they could find some grounds) or an out of pocket expenses system from which people can only claim for clearly legitimate extra costs.
This is not an uncommon ambiguity. Take the provision many organizations have for people to claim lunch when they are out of the office. There is no reason why lunch out of town should cost you more than lunch bought at the sandwich shop round the corner from your workplace. But people claim on the implicit grounds that having your lunch bought is some recompense for the wear and tear of travelling.
Many MPs acted very unwisely. Some may have been deliberately dishonest. But I suspect that most simply made a category error – mistaking a provision for out of pocket expenses for an entitlement to compensation.
What it was in MPs’ attitudes and the culture of Parliament that allowed this disastrous error of judgement to take place is important. It is a pity we aren’t debating this rather than succumbing to the stupid and dangerous idea that one of the world’s strongest and cleanest democracies (albeit one that could do with some serious reform) is a den of venality and corruption.