Is it wrong to feel mildly envious of those of you who’re enjoying the scandal over MPs’ expenses so very much more than I am? Possibly so. Envy is, after all, not a particularly attractive emotion. Subliminally, I suppose what’s so unattractive about it is that it’s the province of losers, the under-performers, the perpetual have-nots, in the same way that whatever else kindness may signal, it’s about possession, competence and success, however relative in measure. So, perhaps I should simply try to find more goodwill in my heart towards the various circumstances that are — according to the media at any rate — triggering a ‘revolution’ amongst our parliamentarians, fired by the righteous angry zeal — so the media tell us once again — of an outraged British electorate.
Yet, truth be told, this ‘revolution’ feels more depressing than inspiring. For one thing, it’s gone on too long already, and I don’t just mean the past fourteen days, either. Remember Nannygate, anyone? Nearly a year ago, most of the scenery had already been dragged into place: the rules on parliamentary expenses exposed as a sort of Montessori-style ‘prepared environment’ in which the full wide spectrum of human nature might freely be expressed, David Cameron’s habitual cringing deference to each passing day’s media narrative already dressed up as ‘ruthlessness’ (if not actually ‘setting the agenda’), public fury already more often assumed or asserted by those who felt the public ought to be furious than actually displayed (at least without aggressive prompting) on the part of the general public, who seem to me, at any rate, far more illusionless regarding the qualities of the political classes than some of those classes, or their friends in the media, fully comprehend.
Of course some MPs have behaved, over the past decade or so, very badly indeed — a few of them at least as badly as e.g. a newspaper which handles stolen goods while simulaneously setting itself up as a credible arbiter of public virtue. But somewhere along the line, that handful of truly ‘go to gaol, go directly to gaol, do not pass go’ cases has become confused, in some quarters, with various forms of low-level greediness within the existing rules, recognisable if nonetheless culpable moral slackness, as well — one images — as a few cases in which, were the full circumstances of the apparent ‘impropriety’ known, or the Daily Telegraph‘s negative constructions at any rate omitted, public opinion might prove more understanding.
Yet as the story develops its own ineluctable momentum, the rush to judgement accelerates, to the point where failure to run with the herd is now dangerous. We’re now in a political climate where the only thing that matters about an MP is how much he costs, in purely personal terms, rather than what he delivers — a frame of reference that exists, when one thinks of it, pretty much nowhere else in everyday life.
It’s apparently better, for instance, to be the sort of MP who blithely spews away literally billions of someone else’s money into the foetid and unappeasable maw of our risibly-titled ‘public services’, but who has never bought a lamp or a chair at our expense, than an MP with slightly demanding tastes who nevertheless labours tirelessly to reduce our overall tax burden, trim back the public sector and generally free us from the grasp of an overmighty if often rather ineffectual nation state. Or to put it another way, I’d be rather more ecstatic about the tinkling stream of smallish reimbursements — released from the accounts of MPs through whatever combination of contrition, cynicism or simple bullying — were it not for the fact that none of this, however well-intentioned, will make any detectable difference to the public sector net cash requirement, the new 50 per cent income tax band, or indeed those sly little taxes and regulatory burdens that now insinuate themselves into the most surprising niches of our lives.
Overwhelmingly, the MPs’ expenses scandal is simply a colourful distraction from an infinitely more terrifying story of theft, waste and moral vacancy, that has gone on for many decades now and that shows no sign of conclusion. As a Tory, looking back with fond regard to the days of a smaller, less intrusive state, no wonder I fail to share the general excitement regarding this ‘revolution’.
But of course there’s more to it than that, which is really the point of this post. Somehow, a perfectly reasonable complaint about an ill-thought-out and much-abused system of remuneration has become entangled with something much nastier, the bastard offspring of economic recession crossed with a strand of sour, cheese-paring, tut-tutting miserabilist censoriousness that’s probably always there, mouldering quietly in the damper corners of our public culture until circumstances somehow encourage it — a creeping leveller tendency, for want of a better word, construed here in its broadest, least historically specific and in fact most pejorative meaning.
For if we’re being honest about it, what finished off the career of the honourable and learned member for Sleaford and North Hykeham? Was it a matter of £2,000 worth of expenses, almost certainly properly claimed, but in any event quickly repaid? Of course it wasn’t. It was a story of an Old Etonian peer, his moat, his stables, his piano and the petty-minded shabbiness of a public culture which finds each of these things somehow ridiculous and shaming — no matter who’s paying for them, since it’s highly unclear that the public did, in fact, pay for anything other than some fairly normal household expenses, under a system which in any event isn’t means-tested.
Would £2,000 spent the upkeep of a nondescript bungalow, perhaps including the purchase of modest-sized television or inexpensive gym equipment and the help of a ‘cleaner’ (which is to say, anything but a ‘housekeeper’) have generated so much comment? Self-evidently not. But the present-day Tory party has such a terror of being associated with property, privilege or tradition as to render Douglas Hogg’s forced retreat from politics a near-inevitability. Whereas in a better world, of course, Sir Michael Spicer would have been the one to face the full fury of polite opinion, if only for trying to pass off some rather ordinary electric-lighting fixture as a queasily non-U ‘chandelier’. Oh, go away and sin no more, Sir Michael.
Let us, however, linger near the impressively weed-free and wholesome Kettleburgh moat for a moment longer. Once upon a time, a certain sort of Tory might have regarded the possession of a moat as part of the natural order of things, perhaps even humming a line or two from Mrs Cecil Alexander’s most famous hymn in the course of this contemplation. (Was I alone in feeling rather moved that the late Jade Goody chose All Things Bright and Beautiful for her own funeral? Probably.) Conversely, Tories of more Thatcherite stripe might reasonably have regarded the acquisition of a moat, as well as all the other pleasant things that go with moats, as a worthy, perhaps even laudable aspiration.
What neither would have done, however, was to have entertained the notion that possession of a moat was, in itself, an act of such shocking tactlessness and insensitivity as somehow to prevent an MP from availing himself of compensation arrangements provided to all MPs. Yet rather than attacking the logically flawed proposition that people who own moats are somehow intrinsically ‘out of touch’ with the interests and aspirations of ‘ordinary’ people — or at any rate, asserting the evident truth that effective representation has more to do with informed intelligence and imaginative sympathy than with literal replication — Mr Cameron went on to do what he always does, which was to throw to the baying dogs a few of his parliamentary colleagues whom he didn’t much like anyway (c.f. Sir Peter Viggers), then seek to benefit in an opportunistic and unprincipled sort of way from circumstances very much not of his own creation.
On a related note, it was striking that, in his ill-fated attempt to regain some sort of control over the narrative, the Prime Minister denied that the Commons could ‘operate like some gentlemen’s club’, apparently assuming that all reasonable people would regard the operations of a gentlemen’s club as, self-evidently, a bad thing. Yet the second home allowance, and indeed many of the other arrangements that until recently enhanced the conditions of serving and retired MPs, were introduced, not in order that the Commons should more closely resemble White’s, but rather, to make it possible to serve as an MP in the absence of either a lucrative part-time job or a good-sized private income. Whether this arrangement has been worth the costs is, perhaps, a more interesting topic for public debate than the curious spending habits of individual MPs, although perhaps obliquely addressed in through some of the commentary on Michael Martin MP’s resignation as Speaker of the House, where the fact that the former sheet metal worker is to draw a pension ‘worth up to £2 million’ is apparently regarded as far more damnable than the fact — and it is, alas, a fact — that he was never a particularly competent Speaker in the first place. In a major break with recent tradition, and a curiously mean-spirited gesture besides, it also looks as if he’ll be denied the comforts of a life peerage.
All of which brings us back to the subject of our present-day levellers. For whilst in the levellers’ eyes it’s clearly bad, these days, to own a moat, let alone to maintain it properly, it’s also bad to be an MP, in the sense that elected office renders one part of an elite — which is to say, almost by definition out of touch, incompetent and incurably venal. And of course it’s been bad for months now to work in ‘banking’ — the fine distinctions between commercial versus investment banking, cash versus derivatives trading and so forth long since trampled in the general rush to condemn our ‘failed’ financial system, for which government policy obviously bears no responsibility whatsoever — because bankers are also out of touch, incompetent and venal, with the added twist that most people actually have no idea what it is that they do, and hence simply cannot believe that they deserve any payment for it.
And by the same token, it’s perennially bad to be the Prince of Wales, because he wears expensive shoes and clothing, even when visiting building sites or Google conventions, says ‘one’ a lot, and worries about things that no one else does — until a decade or so later, anyway, at which point he’s generally proved entirely correct, as with the diversification of rural communities into organic farming and other value-added activities, or the fact that most people would rather live in attractive and functional buildings than hideous and dysfunctional ones. According to the leveller critique, however, the Prince is still out of touch, perhaps also incompetent — and if he’s not particularly venal, then perhaps that’s just because he has so very much money in the first place. In fact, it’s bad to be out of the ordinary in any way, especially if in doing so, the implication surfaces that one’s in any sense at all superior to those around one, which of course renders His Royal Highness the levellers’ most suitable and acquiescent target.
Yet the more one starts to look for it, the more it’s there, that levelling tendency, its sour venom gradually poisoning every corner of our cultural endeavours. It’s there, for instance, in the acquaintance who pointedly observed that he disapproves of private education, ‘because it gives some children an advantage’. (The idea that his rather high IQ gave him an advantage, which could easily be levelled downwards by the expedient of bashing him in the head with a spade, somehow didn’t appeal to him.) It’s there in the media figures who hide decent Oxbridge degrees — whilst still benefitting mightily from the contacts that time at university fostered — for fear of looking anything other than ‘ordinary’. It’s there not only in our enforced cognizance of Jade Goody and Susan Boyle but in the central premise of every reality television programme ever inflicted upon the sort of people who enjoy television, as if professional entertainers — entertainers, that is to say, chosen because they are good at entertaining — were somehow out of touch with some notional bulk of of non-entertaining, in fact often dreary and charmless humanity.
On the examples run. This same levelling tendency is there in the shifting attitude towards obvious expert knowledge that has supplied to us by way of fine art-related broadcasting, in sequence, the differing cadences of Lord Clark, Robert Hughes and Matthew Collings. It’s there in David Cameron’s Desert Island Discs, if bracingly absent from Nick Clegg’s Private Passions. It’s there in people who show off about how little they spend on things, for all the world as if the path to moral superiority lay in supporting the efforts of nameless Chinese sweatshops, their near-disposable output and near-disposable workers. I should perhaps add that while I don’t believe for a moment that the path to moral superiority impinges on Primark one way or the other, the santimoniousness of those claims always brings to mind, for some reason, the image of our present monarch, who was spotted some time after Princess Margaret’s death, wearing one of her sister’s old — if almost certainly coture — frocks, coupled with the banal reflection that buying cheap tat is actually quite a lot more profligate in all sorts of ways than buying expensive things that work well and last for ages.
And the levelling tendency is there, too, in our willingness to condemn every last MP for the wickedness of a few, if not for the bad judgement of rather more. It’s there in our willingness first to elect this rather various ‘elite’, then to prefer the Daily Telegraph‘s version of events to the explanations of the MPs themselves, and finally to bay for ‘reform’ — for ‘revolution’ — complete with repulsively ill-judged references to tumbrils, heads rolling and all the rest, as if we’d forgotten the reality behind those hackneyed images. (Or perhaps we have forgotten? The obstacle that’s prevented me from writing about Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism at Tate Modern is the sheer scale of my astonishment that the curators of the exhibition acknowledged the artists’ politics, without at any point mentioning the fact that Lenin killed something like 4 million of his fellow Soviet citizens, and Stalin something like 20 million — all of this well within the memories of people still alive today, yet apparently not the sort of thing that is meant to distract us from the very handsome pictures.) And anyway, since when has revolution ever achieved any serious, lasting good?
It’s late, though. Rather to my regret, we must leave that gesture of coat-trailing reactionary flamboyance to one side, for tonight at least. Here, as if by way of compensation, is the central point.
I really don’t like this scandal. I don’t really like what it says about what one might as well parse, for want of a better phrase, as ‘the public mood’. The anger — hatred, even — expressed towards MPs in the course of this expenses scandal feels grotesquely disproportionate to me, just as the sheer nastiness directed at the financial services sector — stoked up in part by politicians, eager to avoid any hint of blame — felt disproportionate. Of course moments of crisis, real or simulated, are rich in opportunities to identify weaknesses in existing systems, as well as the chance to discover and reinforce strengths. Our evolved constitution is, at some level, little more than scar-tissue left over from crises long past and generally forgotten. The last two weeks have been strange ones, replete with the unexpected, the frankly alarming and, for those who like that sort of thing, the odd ‘world turned upside down’ moment. Possibly not all the changes we’ll see over the next few months will be malign ones. Some, perhaps, may even be for the best.
But — well, envy isn’t a very attractive emotion, is it? Yet as far as I can make out, the sort of leveller tendency that has coaxed so many into hating MPs so much, hating bankers, hating established conventions, hating our existing political, social and financial order — has its roots in envy, an emotion no more handsome for being, in so many of these cases, all mixed up into a queasy cocktail of self-righteousness, insecurity and fear, of which there’s all too much about.
At some level, of course, I can see the appeal. No doubt, there’s some irresponsible fun to be had in picking off errant MPs, scoring resignations or deselections, reshaping the lumpy stuff of everyday existence with recourse to the rhythms of hubris followed swiftly by nemesis. No doubt, there’s some entertainment in seeing how much can be chipped away before the whole edifice collapses on top of us. It’s quite bracing to talk about revolutions, especially if you narrow your eyes so that all you see are the happy triumphant scenes of liberation, not the real damage done in their wake.
So, far be it from me to spoil the general mood of celebration. By all means, enjoy it if you can. Personally, though, I’ll sit this one out. Because once you’ve got rid of all these wicked and venal MPs, once you’ve engaged in the sweeping reform, once you’ve shown your elected representatives how little you trust or respect them, what then? Rule by sea-green incorruptible paragons of public and private virtue? They don’t exist. More creatively devolved power structures? Human nature is, I can promise you, as flawed outside of Westminster as it is within it. Salvation through different voting systems, new parties, mani pulite campaigns? Distractions, distractions — for the levellers will, alas, always be with us, their moral defect manifesting its bitter force whenever circumstances permit, if only because their defect is, to a degree, also ours, a basic and ineradicable disorder of the human condition.
So, what’s the alternative? The boring truth is, I’m afraid, that while our current system is neither as perfect as we might hope, nor as fatally flawed as we might sometimes slyly wish, the existence of inequalities within it should neither surprise nor distress conservatives or, for that matter, the more sharp-witted sort of liberal. At the same time, the most potent solvent of envy — which is to say, its contrasting theological virtue, simple kindness — is always freely there for the taking.