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History: every vote counts May 25, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Comment & Opinion.
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Callimachus, it is up to you, right now, to enslave Athens or to make it free … Right now, Athens is in the most perilous moment of its history … Now, I’ll tell you just how this is possible, how it is up to you – and only you – to determine the course of events. We ten generals are split right in two, with half saying fight and the other half not. If we don’t fight now, I’m afraid that a storm of civil strife will so shake the timber of the Athenian people that they will go over to the Medes. But if we fight now, before the cracks can show in some of the Athenians … why then we can survive this battle. All this depends on you. It hangs on your decision – now. If you vote with me, your country will be free and your city will be first in all of Hellas, but if you choose the side of those who urge us not to fight, then the opposite of all the good I’ve spoken of will fall to you.

General Miltiades, Marathon, 490BC; quoted by Herodotus, The Histories 6.109; Blanco 1992.


Be apathetic at your peril May 18, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Electoral & Parliamentary Reform, Financial shenanigans.
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The subject of voter apathy has long been a point of discussion, however a lot of comments I’ve witnessed over the last week regarding Expensegate – whether on Twitter, BBC or the numerous newspaper comments forums – point to  “apathy” being in some quarters a wild understatement.

Comments along the lines of “Expenses? Can’t. Be. Bothered”, “Bored with expenses, why don’t the media shut up about it?”, “I don’t care, it’s just a drop in the ocean”, or even “Leave them [MPs] alone, they’ve a difficult job to do.”

Yet there can be little argument that the events that have engulfed Parliament over the past ten days are unprecedented in recent political history. First the jaw-dropping extent of the expenses abuses themselves – not mere rumours of them but hard proof in the form of official paperwork; then allegations (today’s Telegraph) that the Fees Office assisted at least one MP in screwing the system; and this evening the so-far unverified report that the Met are intending to investigate at least five MPs for irregularities, including the current Chancellor of the Exchequer and a former cabinet minister. The Speaker of the House of Commons, already deeply unpopular and himself accused of allowance abuses in February last year, lost his temper and verbally attacked two MPs for expressing their condemnation of Parliament’s failings; today, when he refused to heed mounting calls for him to step down, he refused to give time to a debate of no confidence in him (do turkeys vote for Christmas?) and was in turn hounded by exasperated MPs in the chamber. Reportedly the Queen has told the Prime Minister to deal with the expenses situation immediately. The leader of the Opposition has not only abandoned normal campaigning for the forthcoming local and European elections and called for the dissolution of parliament and a general election, he is also urging the people of the country – whatever their political persuasion – to write petitions telling the government to go (in fact at time of writing 60,200 people have already signed an existing online petition asking the Prime Minister to resign).

This affair is rapidly heading towards becoming one of Britain’s most significant political crises since the upheavals of the mid-17th century, if not the most. Yes, politicians and party leaders have been ousted here and there since that time, and indeed a King abdicated over a personal matter that clashed with his monarchical position; but there has been little of such magnitude that it threatened to bring the whole parliamentary edifice crashing down around the country’s ears if left unaddressed. Nothing that so pervaded the whole seat of government, on all sides of the house, and so shocked the country, or which demanded such immediate “root and branch” reform of the way MPs fundamentally conduct themselves while carrying out their duties. Nothing that so damaged the faith and trust that the people put in their representatives.

It will certainly be an unpleasantly historic moment if the Speaker is removed, as the last time that happened was in 1695 when Sir John Trevor was ousted for taking bribes.

And speaking of bribes, we mustn’t forget another ongoing financial scandal: two members of the House of Lords currently face suspension from the House for taking money in return for tabling amendments. To my knowledge the last time this sanction was imposed was during the English Civil War, when many Lords (and indeed many MPs in the Commons) were “disabled” from sitting, for siding with King Charles I.

With all these things in mind, and given how political crises can, if handled the wrong way, spiral outwards into political and civil protest, unrest or even civil war – if you’re unconvinced, read any book on the origins of the English Civil War and the anger many ordinary people felt towards the King and his advisors – how can any sane citizen, with a care for the welfare of their country, dismiss the expenses affair as boring, unimportant, and un-newsworthy?


[Update 01:47 19.05: the news article re. the Met investigations (via @wdawe, with thanks) ]

Digital Sinecure May 13, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Financial shenanigans, Labour lunacy.
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a grotesque amount of public money to waste on a pointless job

… is the opinion of the Taxpayers Alliance, concerning the government’s appointment of a “Director of Digital Engagement”. Salary? £160,000.

A grotesque waste, yes; though perhaps an indication that after its recent excruciating attempts at “digital engagement” – e.g. bizarre YouTube videos and a petition on the PM’s own website demanding his resignation (57,831 signatures at time of writing) – the government at least recognises that it needs someone to manage what it does on the web.

But heck, what am I saying? That would imply that the government is capable of recognising its own failings *laughs hysterically*

“We can’t be trusted: so you must pay for us to be policed.” May 10, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Financial shenanigans.
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This expenses affair is starting to feel like a particularly surreal episode of Monty Python.

From The Times:

MPs on the House of Commons Commission, which oversees the running of Parliament, will meet today to approve a new independent unit to process expenses. The unit, expected to cost £600,000 a year, is being seen as a desperate rearguard action to protect Parliament’s reputation.

So because a large number of MPs appear to have no concept of morals or integrity, and “the system” is too weak and/or corrupted to prevent them milking it, we have to pay another £600,000 every year to pay a private company to police those MPs and stop them thieving from the public purse?

Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to sack the lot of them and start again?

Parliament must be dissolved NOW and a general election called; AFTER every MP’s expenses are fully publicised, unredacted, so that voters can make up their own minds as to whether the present incumbent in their constituency is fit to hold office.

And as for this

Senior Labour figures say that the future privatisation of the Fees Office to process claims would exempt receipts from publication under Freedom of Information rules.

… words simply fail me.

Gamekeepers and pheasants – update May 10, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Electoral & Parliamentary Reform, Financial shenanigans.
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Original Sky News report here.

Mr Bell goes on to say that the unit will be staffed with “professional accountants”.

Does this imply that Westminster has not employed professional accountants in the past?

“Professional” does not necessarily equate to “impartial”. Will these accountants be independently vetted for any conflict of interest before they begin their work?

Gamekeepers and pheasants May 10, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Electoral & Parliamentary Reform, Financial shenanigans.
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Stuart Bell, Labour MP to Sky News (via BBC news):

In all probability tomorrow the (House of Commons) Commission will approve a special specific audit unit, hived off from the fees office, independent of the fees office which will verify in future every claim that’s made by any member of Parliament.

Excuse me? The House of Commons Commission? Which supervises Commons administration? To “approve” a unit which in turn will approve MPs’ expenses?

You are having a laugh. Gamekeepers and pheasants come to mind. Surely, given the scale of this situation, nothing is acceptable short of absolute independence of the auditing body from Parliament, in every respect, including who appoints it and where it convenes.

Parliament has shown it cannot be trusted to police itself, and frankly it is impossible to believe Parliament will satisfactorily clean up its own mess without putting its own interests first.

Perhaps the Athenians were onto something… May 9, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Electoral & Parliamentary Reform, Financial shenanigans.
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I’m studying Ancient Greece for a degree course, and read something yesterday in one of the set books that struck a chord with me.

Including jobs entailed by the administration of the empire, there may have been as many as severn hundred official positions in classical Athens, and most offices were held … by boards of several men, all serving one-year terms. Many … were selected by lot. Most citizen males, by the time they died had held some public office at one time or another, and a good many had held several. By diluting power in this way, Athenian voters believed they could inhibit the growth of an identifiable class of permanent officials (what we might call bureaucrats) with interests different from those of the populace at large.

(Pomeroy, S.B., Burstein, S.M., Donlan, W. and Roberts, J.T. (2004) a Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society and Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press; p.47)

To my mind, both bureaucrats and politicians are “an identifiable class” in the UK today, and it’s been very clear for a very long time that a great number of them – particularly politicians – have interests as far removed from the populace at large as it is possible to get.

Perhaps – given the bloated size of these classes in our society, their stifling effect on personal liberty and on economic growth (political correctness; “red tape”), and the fact that they feel they have an unquestioned right to gorge themselves on the public purse – we should consider the Athenian concept of public service more closely?

“Public Service” vs. “Self-Service” May 8, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Financial shenanigans.
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It occurs to me that there are thousands of people in this country who work tirelessly for charities, good causes and local community efforts; some receive a modest salary, others basic expenses, and some – probably the great majority – receive no remuneration at all. That, it seems, is true service: to think only of the work, and what it can achieve, and within that work, to forget the self.

Politicians are called “public servants”; but plainly they are not. They pursue the exact definition of “self-service”: that is, helping yourself to whatever’s on offer, “as much as you can eat”, and in this particular instance, getting someone else to pay. In fact, to pay twice: for not only do politicians get their menu choices paid for, but they get paid handsomely simply for being in the cafe in the first place.

I suggest that the only way to get people into politics who truly want to serve, is to pay a salary no more than the current national average, to remove all “allowances”, and to limit or deny expenses altogether except for those specifically on a list pre-agreed by a body independent of Parliament. Perhaps “extraordinary expenses” might be claimed, but only under the utmost scrutiny, by an independent body, and with no guarantee that they would be granted.

By limiting the material benefits in this way you can be sure that only those people truly dedicated to public service, and who truly knew what it meant, would apply.

*Splutter* May 8, 2009

Posted by lifejacket in Uncategorized.
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How remiss! Not to have blogged for close on 3 years. I blame the last Tory government (why not? They’ve been responsible for everything since 1997 … haven’t they?)

Meanwhile, I admire tenacity, but UKIP have never been on my radar as planet-earth dwellers.

I’m benevolently hopeful for them, I really am, but as long as Gordon Brown has any fingernails left – imaginary ones, in his case – he ain’t going to loosen his grip. Not that he has much of one in many other respects.