‘Constitutional Crisis? What a Claim!’

For over a week now, the media has been obsessed with the expenses claimed by Ministers of Parliament. Journalists are gorging themselves on each new revelation, their collective drool enough to fill an ocean. The general public is not much better, with sales of ‘The Daily Telegraph’, the primary source of the information, soaring. Expense-gate, as I’m sure this will soon be coined, has been called the greatest constitutional crisis since Edward VI abdicated the throne.

Really? Will our government, our entire political system actually collapse over a few plumbing bills and some snacks? Maybe I stand alone, but I find this whole debacle quite refreshing. If the revelations of the last week tell us anything, it is not that we are run by a bunch of corrupt thieves, but that Parliament is in fact, as it is meant to, made up of humans just like ourselves. We have been offered a delightful insight into the petty and mundane lives of our MPs. Yes, they too buy digestive biscuits, and they too need to damp-proof their homes. And yes, they too don’t fancy paying for these things if at all possible. Do we really believe, those of us who answer questionnaires, and attend talks on matters we have no interest in whatsoever because of the promise of free cake, that we would not do the same as our representatives? Our MPs are merely older, and more tired versions of naughty schoolchildren, the ‘Backbench Kids’ to the Beano’s ‘Bash Street Kids’, pushing the limit until the teacher has had enough. Fortunately for them, the Speaker of the House seems more incapable of controlling them than the decrepit half-deaf Latin teacher.

In fact it is not our MPs who should come out badly from this news cycle, but us, the general public. While our eyes pored over the claims of the Honourable Member for Dumbarton, or some other constituency wholly unrelated to us, many have probably failed to notice, and to care, that war in Sri Lanka, a decades-old conflict, seems finally to be over, while Kuwait, a repressive Muslim state, has finally modernised and elected women MPs.

Of course they shouldn’t have done it. Just like many of us shouldn’t have gone out the night before a 9.15 lecture, or shouldn’t have put those chips back on the tray after they fell on the floor. These may seem trivial, but so are the expenses claims when you take into account the projected £18 billion cost by 2010 of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The real tragedy is not for our constitution, but for the poor overweight Alex Salmond, who claimed £400 a month in August and September 2008 when the House was not even sitting. And let us not forget Douglas Hogg, who claimed £2,200 for the clearing of his moat. Now that’s just plain cool.

10 comments

  1. Why should evidence of their ‘humanity’ be mollifying? We all know (and knew) M.P.s are human, that’s not in question. The problem is that we live in a system of representative democracy, where we as the sovereign public are meant to elect ordinary men and women to represent us. M.P.s were demonstrably regarding themselves not as accountable to those they represented, nor were they concerned with the grey areas of the money they claimed from their electorate. As a result, trust in parliament – in the body that represents us according to our political system – has been diminished. If the country has reached a point where the foundation principle of its system, the rule by a democratically elected government accountable to MPs who represent us, is being called into question by disillusionment on one part and disdain on the other, then yes – that is a constitutional crisis – and that *is* as important as Sri Lanka or Kuwait. You wouldn’t accept humanity as an excuse in any other area – the doctor confused your medical notes with someone else’s, the police genuinely thought you were a terrorist, your tutor found marking your work boring so didn’t do it – why should it be an excuse for the disintegration of ethical reflection in parliament?

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  2. I agree that it’s been blown out of proportion slightly, but you can’t disregard as frivolous people who get paid with public money claiming expenses for things that have nothing to do with their job. Expenses are intended to reimburse MPs for money they have to spend as a result of travelling to and from Westminster from their constituency, or to simply do their job properly. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t have to eat a biscuit to qualify as an MP, or clean a moat, maintain a swimming pool or buy nicely-packaged food from M&S; these are all matters of choice, not terms of employment. Also, I think you mean ‘Members of Parliament’ rather than ‘Ministers’.

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  3. “And let us not forget Douglas Hogg, who claimed £2,200 for the clearing of his moat. Now that’s just plain cool.”

    More stimulating political polemic from the blogs, I see.

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  4. Ridiculous blog by someone who blatantly doesn’t understand the issue. Is YOUR dad an MP or something?

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  5. I do agree that the entire situation is blown out of proportion and that “constitutional crisis” is perhaps the most overused phrase I know of… it’s simply being used as a front by people who want an early election (i.e. smaller parties).

    There are still, however, grave concerns over the entire thing – as one Lib Dem MP put it, they had the chance last summer to correct this but they let it become a major scandal. And I still can’t believe that anyone who would want to represent people on a national scale would dare screw over taxpayers in that way! Shocking… but not as much as about ten things this year that I could name without thinking too hard.

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  6. Alex, anon,

    This is in fact a comment piece, not a blog. Whilst I largely agree with you both, a little more observation may strengthen your arguments somewhat.

    Polemic may have struck you as an impressive word to use Alex, but in a sentence which just isn’t true it’s lost its impact somewhat.

    Just thought I’d point that out.

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  7. The idea that the expenses scandal doesn’t matter because more money is spent on the wars is a really daft argument. Post office closures aren’t an issue because there’s a war on? ID cards aren’t an issue because of the war? 90 days detention isn’t an issue because of the war? Failing a degree isn’t an issue because there’s a war on? Potholes in university road aren’t an issue because of a war?

    Come on. These are two seperate issues.

    And yes, constitutional crisis is an odd term to use, especially as our constitution has been in crisis since it was writt…oh wait. It’s not written. Thats why there’s a crisis.

    Expenses is the tip of the constitutional iceberg. We have a political system based upon ancient customs, traditions, ceremonies and conventions. It is precisely because we don’t have a constitution that we can’t get rid of MPs who break the law (Archer? Lord Ahmed?), that we have an unelected prime minister, why we have hereditary and life peers and bishops in parliament who we never voted for, why our electoral system isn’t representitive, why ministers can ignore the human rights act, why it’s up to the PM to decide when the next election is so he can judge the public mood to his own advantage. It’s all based on convention. Nothing entrenched, nothing codified. Nothing binding.

    This expenses scandal is very important, it opens the door for proper constitutional reform – kicking out the hereditaries, electing both chambers, getting rid of archaic discriminatory practices outlined in the act of settlement as well as reforming how MPs go about their own personal duties and who pays for what.

    So yes, you could argue that any constitutional reform is a waste of time because there’s a war on. Or you could actually research the issues properly and realise how our entire political system is flawed, archaic and past it’s sell-by-date.

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  8. Despite people over-hyping it the main issue is one of honesty. Against our better judgment we expect those elected by us to hold higher moral standards, honesty being one of them. If we can’t trust those who supposedly represent us then how can we trust them to represent the electorate and not themselves?

    The reason this has got out of control is because of the culture that has developed as standards for approving expenses have slid. The more people can get away with and the more that their peers do it, the more it will happen until someone does something about it.

    – Former constituent of Bury North (David Chaytor MP: £11,000 for a mortgage that didn’t exist)

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  9. It was Edward VIII who abdicated, I think Edward VI was the son of Henry VIII.

    More on-topic, no, I don’t believe I would cheat and wrangle extra money out of the system in the way some MPs have. Their salary is already more than 4 times what some people earn; people who, despite their smaller salaries, can’t claim for any expenses, not even those absolutely vital for their performing their jobs such as transport to and from work.

    I have previously worked and volunteered in roles where I was entitled to claim for some modest expenses, e.g. transport to work, lunches. Instead, because I was working for a charity and didn’t want them to be have any unnecessary additional expense, I brought sandwiches from home and walked for an hour to get to work rather than getting the bus. Why are MPs not able to act in the same way?

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  10. Some interesting points here. I’m especially interested by the question of ‘would we do the same?’

    The disturbing thing is that I suspect Hugh is right – we all probably would. But that doesn’t mean that these people *didn’t* do it, or that our political system hasn’t failed massively in allowing them to do it.

    Lord Puttnam made some interesting comments about this at the NGS’s Kennedy Lecture last night, using the line ‘That wasn’t the deal’. He suggested that our whole generation has been deceived about the economy, the environment, and now the world of politics.
    Full transcript of his lecture will be on http://www.newgenerationsociety.com shortly.

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