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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?

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

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?