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Chris Dillow writes about the rule fetishism of politicians making allowances claims – that they made strategic and tactical decisions rather than ethical ones, that they worked within the letter rather than the spirit of the law.

Chris Dillow writes about the rule fetishism of politicians making allowances claims – that they made strategic and tactical decisions rather than ethical ones, that they worked within the letter rather than the spirit of the law.

 

One explanation of these claims is that MPs lack character. That they lack the ability to maintain an ethical orientation to their work all of their own accord, what David Cameron has called ‘judgement’. This is not all that surprising given what psychology tells us about character – that it can be heavily influenced by situations.

 

But this ‘situationism’ about character doesn’t get MPs off the hook. The situation in which they made their allowances claims was that of their reaction to the system, not the system itself. Think of a group of college students waiting to leave a lecture hall. The physical situation is just a bunch of people sat in seats in a hall listening to somebody speak. What matter are the reactions of the students to one another’s reactions to each other – if enough rustle their bags in the right way, then a critical mass of students perceive this and start the exodus, joined by other students who surmise it is now okay to leave.

 

MPs making their allowances claims is similar to this. Each perceives what the others do and reacts to that. The end result is a culture in which it becomes acceptable to play the system, just like it becomes acceptable for college students to leave the lecture a few seconds before the lecturer has finished speaking.

 

The culture of playing the system is thus the aggregate result of individual perceptions of what MPs think other MPs are doing, and what they think it is acceptable for one another to do. So they may not be responsible for the system, but they are certainly responsible for their reaction to it.

 

Their reaction tells us something about the kind of people they are (perhaps the kind of people we are), for when there is room for interpretation of a situation, what shows through are implicit social norms. In a hierarchical society, where respect for learning is highly important, students will not leave the lecture hall until the lecturer finishes speaking, even if there is no explicit forbiddance of this. In a more relaxed society, they will leave somewhat before. In a very relaxed society they will start leaving whenever they want.

 

The way that MPs interpreted the situation of their allowances claims tells us about the implicit social norms they hold – and not a very palatable set of norms they turn out to be. Part of the answer is to change the system. But the larger part is to change the norms.

 

I don’t think that each party has espoused specific norms that encourage playing the allowances system. I think rather that each party has lost a collective implicit ethos that would have acted as a bulwark against such abuse.

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