Knives are out today for the Culture Secretary Maria Miller. Having been caught over-claiming expenses, and forced to pay back £5,800, her latest crime was to issue an apology that was only 32 seconds in length. The public loves the spectacle of MPs, and especially ministers, in discomfort, and the press is unrelenting in pursuing this important story.
Except, it’s not an important story at all. Since the entire scandal over MPs’ expenses blew up in 2009, the press has revelled in its supposed assault on parliamentary corruption. But the biggest story to emerge was how tiny the extent of the corruption was, amounting to a mere £1m in total. Much of this was not really corrupt at all: MPs, having had their pay driven down in recent years, had been given a wink that they could use the expenses system to make up some of the difference. Only in a handful of cases was there a suspicion of criminal activity.
With honest reporting, the outcome would have been a handful of prosecutions, a review of MPs’ pay (which would probably have concluded that they are somewhat underpaid for what they do), and some national back-patting to congratulate ourselves on having one of the least corrupt political systems on the planet.
Instead, the incident has been endlessly replayed, twisted and exaggerated. I’m no fan of Maria Miller or her government, but I would point out that her original “crime” was almost insignificant; and pursuing her now on the basis that her apology was too short is pathetic.
Why has the scandal been so over-exaggerated? Because it has been used as an assault on our Parliament and our democracy. Five years of endless repetition have left the public with the idea that our parliamentary system is rotten to the core. It is one of a number of essentially false stories that are being used to weaken faith in democratic government.
Combine MPs’ expenses with other popular, but untrue memes: that the Labour government crashed the economy (actually this was caused by bad lending in the US); that the UK’s national debt level is unsustainable (it’s high but we could have paid it down without the need for Osborne’s cuts); and that open borders with the EU have somehow caused the country damage (although economists and business leaders are confident that the opposite is true), and you have a potent formula for undermining British democracy.
There’s no shortage of real scandals to obsess over, should the press decide to. Our police forces have recently been repeatedly exposed as being corrupt to the very top – far more so than MPs. We are spied on as a matter of routine. Our postal service was privatised at far too cheap a price, costing us around 750 times the cost of the expenses débâcle.
Many MPs are cowardly, display a faltering grasp of complex issues and fail to provide the parliamentary leadership we need. Many of them are morons. But they’re our morons. We created this Parliament by allowing ourselves to be distracted from big issues by dishonest reporting. By holding MPs to ludicrously high standards of behaviour that we apply to nobody else, we end up by filling Parliament with dull mediocrities. If we want better MPs, we should participate in politics, and elect better MPs. That’s a power we have, thanks to generations of people who fought for democracy.
But instead, the public (or its most moronic members, anyway) is increasingly convinced that democracy is failing, and that action must be taken. This benefits UKIP, the party that once pretended to be all about leaving the EU, but now openly stokes up hatred against immigrants. Never mind that Nigel Farage has claimed more in MEP’s expenses than any British MP – today, he is billed as the heroic outsider who will bring down a corrupt political elite.
The editors of the Mail, Times, Express, Sun and Telegraph (who each earn far more than an MP) know they’re stoking an anti-democratic insurgency. The dangerous rise in nationalism – whether the right-wing UKIP form, or the supposedly progressive variety in Scotland – risks destabilising a country that for centuries has probably been the most stable on Earth. And it risks destabilising a continent which is the most bloodthirsty on the planet, and has never needed a good excuse to go to war with itself.
MPs who over-claim expenses can be exposed and left to the electorate. We have far bigger problems to deal with than that.