"O wad some Power the giftie gie us"
People don't like MPs. They may like individual Members of Parliament but MPs en masse are unpopular. This isn't new. It's quite healthy for individuals to feel cynical about the people they elect to rule them, so long as that cynicism leads into a proper questioning of representatives and involvement in political debate.
The last weeks have transformed the everyday cynicism into a blend of emotions as members of the public have begun to realise that the dislike they feel for MPs is mild compared with the attitudes many MPs demonstrate for their constituents. A heckler on BBC TV's Question Time got it right when he shouted at Margaret Beckett, "So you are better than us."
There are so many outrageous claims: the plasma TVs, the duck house, tax-funded advice on how to avoid tax, London MPs. It's hard to know how to react when discovering that two MPs so far (the Daily Telegraph has more than 400 MPs yet to investigate) have spent some of their parliamentary allowance on large quantities of horse shit. I've begun to wonder who got the better bargain: Sir David Heathcote-Amory who paid £380.80 for manure at 70p a sack or Sir Peter Viggers who spent nearly £500 for 28 tons of the stuff. It sounds like a question for a maths exam: If the MPs buy their horse shit from the same supplier at the same rate, how much does a sack hold?
There's the flipping of houses, the absurd travel allowances, the purchases ranging from imported rugs and champagne flutes to dogfood and chocolate hobnobs. Our taxes have paid for the maintenance of priavtely-owned trees, moats and swimming pools. Of course we're cross.
I'm wondering how it happened. Some MPs are sorry. Cynicism says, "well, they would say that, wouldn't they?" Others insist it was a mistake (so many mistakes), that they acted within the rules (which they made), that the public are just jealous (of that ugly house!), that we don't understand, that officials were at fault, that they deserve our sympathy. There are occasional instances of courage when bemused MPs face the wrath of the voters. And then there are the minority: MPs who didn't fiddle expenses or see how much they could get but thought it their duty to do their job without seeing how much they could get from the Fees Office. I expect some of the MPs who've been blamed for their expenses really did make mistakes or were doing their best to behave ethically in a bad system. Institutions where bad practices are common drag good people down.
But when I feel sorry for MPs (and I do; their position must be horrid), I remember the way the government urges us to "name and shame" all kinds of people, urging us in advertisements to denounce benefit frauds for stealing our taxes. I think of good teachers who've had nervous breakdowns or left their jobs because they couldn't cope with the constant surveillance and the tick-box inspection regime. I think of hard workers who have been condemned for not meeting standards set by artbitrary league tables - government-set standards that change every year. I think of the way the public has been encourage not just to accept government surveillance but to be involved in watching and judging others. Public humiliation has been a government tactic for years.
That's enough on what the MPs have done. The important question is what we - who are not MPs - do about it. However right we are to lose trust in our MPs, this is a political crisis. In the middle of an economic mess and all kinds of international turmoil, we find we can't trust the people who make the laws and all sorts of decisions on our behalf. So what happens next?
One advantage of late middle age is that I know things can be different. I know this because things were different when I was growing up. There wasn't always a common assumption that value could be measured by income and the display of luxury. When I was preparing to leave university, there were articles in the press urging good graduates to go into industry, assuring them that industry, just as much as public service, could bring benefit to the country as a whole. As students we talked about doing good and helping others without irony and didn't expect to be mocked for such ambitions.
If we once believed in public service, we can believe in it again - but it may mean rethinking many current ideas.
We all need to debate - urgently - what we want from parliament and what a democracy is. I assume we all agree that MPs should be paid, because we don't want a wealth qualification for parliament. But how much should they be paid? In retrospect I'm impressed by Dave Nellist's decision to take only 40% of his parliamentary salary, giving the rest to charities and his local Labour constituency association so that he could live on a "worker's wage." MPs need to be in touch with the living standards of their constituents.
Less than a hundred years ago, MPs weren't paid. Working-class MPs (and there were a few) were dependent on funds raised by supporters and constituency parties. In 1911, an MP's salary of £400 per year was introduced and MPs had the further advantage of free travel on the railways. It was a fairly good salary for the times; it was more than twice the average annual salary for a teacher but less than a third of what a barrister or solicitor would expect to earn. However there was no second home allowance; MPs had to make their own arrangements, pay their own staff and meet all other expenses. Many MPs had other jobs while others - particularly Labour MPs - saw their parliamentary duties as their job.
What is an MP's job? Should an MP be independent, take instructions from constituents, follow the manifesto regardless of changing circumstances or act as lobby fodder for a party? Is an MP's main work helping constituents or is this intervention just a means of garnering votes and keeping a job? What say should MPs have on creating and approving laws - and how much attention should they pay to the details of drafting? And who should keep an eye on what MPs are doing?
These used to be theoretical questions - the sort of thing raised by students and in debating societies. The role of MPs was determined by MPs themselves. Parliament judged the conduct of its members. Now public debate may affect what happens next - and there will be a general election in less than a year.
I don't know who passed the information about MPs expenses to John Wick or why it was brought into the public domain just over a fortnight ago. It may have been released by someone concerned for the public good, for money or to advance a particular agenda. Now we know some of what's been going on and there will be more relevations which could easily continue till the end of June or beyond.
MPs look shocked and battered. The voters are shocked and battered too. I think people are suddenly realising that a vote isn't enough; citizens have to consider what kind of government they want and try to make their voices heard.