Maria Miller, the Expenses “Scandal” and the Assault on Democracy

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.

10 thoughts on “Maria Miller, the Expenses “Scandal” and the Assault on Democracy”

  1. “By holding MPs to ludicrously high standards of behaviour that we apply to nobody else, we end up by filling Parliament with dull mediocrities.”

    Thing is, we – and the vast majority of MPs, including Maria Miller – do hold most others (if not the royal family) to the simple standard of being honest in ones claims of expenses. In non-MP-land, doing what Maria Miller did would land one with either the sack and/or a date in front of m’learned friends (especially if such a “mistake” was made in claiming “welfare” benefits).

    There may well be an assault on UK democracy (I rather think that all the big 4 parties are in on the charade personally) but this isn’t what stokes many fires of rage; it is the sheer hypocrisy that the body politic practises when expecting far higher standards of us. It is not ludicrous or even a high standard to expect a basic level of honesty & decency when spending hard earned taxes on themselves.

    Usually, I’m with you; on this issue, sadly not.

  2. I think the problem lies with the Parliamentary expenses system, which (as you say) was used as a method of topping up MPs’ pay, because it is politically unacceptable to increase their pay to keep up with pay rises at the top end of the public and private sectors (there is a separate question as to whether those pay rises are or should be politically acceptable). Those of us who are used to claiming expenses in our work would never expect such laxity in verifying claims.

    A far better method of “filling Parliament with dull mediocrities”, as you accurately put it, is wide use of the “intern” system, whereby a prospective candidate joins a political office after (usually) university, and works his or her way through the ranks. The nature of the bureaucracy this creates is that those people whose thoughts conform to the “norm” (ie those who toe the party line) tend to advance.

    I’ve seen it suggested that the papers are attacking Miller because of Leveson, which seems odd, given that she was desperate to row back on its conclusions.

    The idea that “the Labour Government caused the crash” is a convenient lie for George Osborne to use (some of Brown’s policies as Chancellor did exacerbate its effects, by leaving nothing in the tank for a rainy day). The main cause was bad lending in the US and UK, caused by laissez faire housing policies, and worsened by the practice of “parcelling up” debt and selling it on repeatedly (partly, this was created as a result of the “Big Bang” in the stock market in the late 1980’s, and avoiding the mistakes of the great Depression was one of the reasons for the rules swept away in Big Bang).

    There is little doubt that democracy is on the attack in large parts of Europe, and the US among other places. The Front National in France polls higher in austere times, we’ve seen the rise of fascist parties in Greece and Ukraine (among others). The Tea Party, which is an “astroturf movement” (fake grass roots) is used to spread falsehoods (democracy works better with an informed electorate). The surprise (at least so far) is that there has been no comparable rise of the “intolerant left”.

  3. “By holding MPs to ludicrously high standards of behaviour that we apply to nobody else,” is, I think, where you go wrong here. Many people in work incur “expenses” and know how tightly controlled that process is. HMRC polices the system vigorously. If what MP’s incur are actually expenses (rather than back door salary), people think their claims should be subject to the same scrutiny (that is not to say that the unique nature of their job should not be recognised), and paid under the same principles (that the expense is wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in the performance of their duties as an MP).

    I can understand why an MP for a constituency far from Westminster needs two houses (one in the constituency, one with access to Westminster), because they do their job in two different places. I even hhave some sympathy with “flipping”. I can’t (to use an absurd but real example) understand why any MP needs a duck house to do their job. And I certainly can’t understand how anyone can claim back money they didn’t spend in the first place.

  4. Hope you don’t mind a long reply here:

    Hmm. I’m not convinced that MPs are held to ‘ludicrously high standards of behaviour’ with regards to expenses. It would appear that since the expenses scandal broke in 2009, the vast majority of MPs have managed to avoid breaking the supposedly draconian expenses rules. Even Miller’s own misbehaviour was from before that time. If the expenses system is so harsh, why has their been so little trouble since then?

    I also have to ask: is there any good reason to believe that Parliament is full of ‘dull mediocrities’ because MPs are held to too much scrutiny? Is there any reason to think that countries where parliamentarians are permitted greater leeway actually have a higher standard of MP? I personally doubt it.

    In any case, maybe MPs are held to greater scrutiny than most figures in public life, but they should be. They’re our elected representatives, meant to represent the people, and when they do bad things the people who voted for them can justifiably feel outraged. And despite being up for election every five years or so, they’re not terribly easy to hold to account; in most respects, Parliament is the judge of itself, and MPs are not overly keen on punishing each other’s wrongdoing. Some sort of recall system for MPs is badly needed.

    It’s rather odd that you list a number of serious, real scandals in British life (which do indeed matter more than Maria Miller’s expenses), in which politicians are either directly or indirectly involved, and then suggest Parliament is *not* ‘rotten to the core’. I’m sorry, but it basically is: our government is institutionally corrupt, and gets more corrupt the further up you go. That’s one of the reasons those other scandals exist. MPs’ expenses may not be the biggest problem but they’re certainly highly symbolic of the general lack of accountability of those in power, and how they tend to conspire against the general public.

    You suggest that exaggerated media coverage of political scandals encourages ‘an anti-democratic insurgency’ and boosts the likes of UKIP. The latter is true, but the former is plain hyperbole. Suggesting that it risks ‘destabilising the continent’ into war is absurdly over-the-top scaremongering.

    Elsewhere on this blog, you seem to generally have confidence in the ability of ordinary people to make their own decisions, and are scornful of those who patronise them and suggest they don’t know what’s best for themselves. How ironic then that you adopt this very patronising attitude towards supporters of UKIP. Of course, they can’t possibly be thinking for themselves, can they? They must be manipulated by the evil popular press! (The same popular press which is rapidly losing circulation.) The minds of the common people must be protected from the likes of the Sun and the Mail! That’s the battle cry of censors everywhere.

    Isn’t it possible that increasing numbers of people are supporting UKIP, not because they’re racists or manipulated by the press, but because they’re just disgusted with the quality of our government? And aren’t such feelings entirely legitimate? I’d never vote for UKIP myself, and certainly don’t see them as any kind of solution; but even if UKIP are more a symptom of a problem, their rise in popularity (and in a different way, that of the SNP) is arguably strong evidence for the serious crisis of faith in our democracy.

  5. I long for the day when democracy as we know it is dead … i.e. the worthless opinions, the ill-informed ‘facts’, the ignorance & the hate are given equal weight with the elite thinkers, the academics, the scientists, the strategists …. is that what people do in their personal lives?

    When I seek knowledge on a subject I do not give equal credance to all with an opinion… I give greater weight to the thoughts of those who have developed insight & theories on the matter.

    We do not need democracy in its current form …. we do not need the power of deep thought to be beaten back by the power of shallow thinking of the masses ….. give the intellectuals room to influence more than the ignorant and certainly more than the haters…

  6. Just a note about the so-called bad lending. It was deliberate fraud on the part of the banks involved, a way to privatize the public treasuries. It wasn’t bad lending at all from their point of view, it was pillage.

  7. Democracy is but a shadow of its former self. What we have nowadays is a banking comptroller parliament where the business of state is all about advancing the reach of central banks into every facet of society and peoples lives. Politicians are bought and paid for, free thinking politicians are demonised and hounded into obscurity, non-aligned independent politicians, instead of using their influence when holding the balance of power, don’t make changes or vote on issues to the benefit of his/her constituents instead they vote according to whatever deal they make in the background to enhance their own personal wealth for a nice cosy exit or retirement from politics. Access by politicians to retirement benefits many years earlier than private citizens is a rort and obvious job perk, as is all the ministerial benefits accorded to them when they “retire” many years in advance of our mandatory retirement age (we get to pull the plough longer). No, I don’t agree that the expenses scandal is a sign of democracy being doomed, it proves democracy is going strong, that democracy is a gravy train and the passengers would never give that up, it just means we have to pay for the politicians to play. Voting is the only vestige of democracy left to us to think we make a difference.

  8. As a British person overseas who is unable to return to his homeland with his family due to the insane UK Immigration policies, THIS WORRIES ME A LOT: “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.”

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