Friday, June 5

Caught red-handed


They say a week is long time in politics. This popular idiom has certainly rung true in recent weeks. Since May 8, in an extraordinary chain of events, expense claims for every Members of Parliament have been progressively published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Day after day, fresh headlines reveal yet another politician from every faction blatantly rorting the institution’s self-governing expense system.

I find it hardly surprising that all this is happening. When Garry and I arrived in the UK in 2005, the national ethos seemed to be one of unrestrained greed. This ugly tone was present everywhere, driven in part by the burgeoning finance sector. However, despite this broader context, the recent MP revelations are still astonishing. While a small minority has proven exemplary, most politicians, while making claims within the guidelines have clearly and ruthlessly violated their spirit for years. The conduct of a few members has simply been criminal, committing outright fraud.

Highlights have included:
  • a claim for a duck house on the pond of one member’s rambling country estate,

  • the cleaning of a moat on another’s member’s estate,

  • porn films viewed by a spouse,

  • a minister whose designated second home was changed three times in a single year. (MPs are allowed to claim expenses to cover the cost of running a second home, on the basis that they need to maintain a presence in their constituency as well as at Westminster. However, on this occasion, the minister’s second property was refurbished and later sold at a profit.)

  • claims for a second home that was neither in London, nor the member’s constituency, and

  • claims for interest payments on mortgages that had already been repaid in full.
Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man responsible for the nation’s budget, has claimed for an accountant to help him complete his tax return. Apparently even he doesn't understand the nation’s tax policy. Furthermore, these revelations of greed are taking place against a backdrop of the nation’s worst recession for more than sixty years. Understandably, support for the Government has reached an unprecedented low, while calls for electoral reform have been increasingly popular.

Needless to say, each revelation has generated more and more anger. Commentators and politicians report a level of hostility in the community unknown for more than a generation. As the weeks pass, the political toll grows. The Speaker of the House was forced to resign, an unprecedented event for more than three hundred years. At least twenty MPs have announced plans to stand down at the next election, or have been barred from standing again by their party.

However, the last 48 hours have proved the most astonishing. Four cabinet ministers have announced their resignation from the front bench. Tonight tensions rose a notch as a fifth high-profile minister unexpectedly resigned and then made an open call for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign.

There's no doubt the last 18-months have been unique in modern UK history. Garry and I never imagined we’d find ourselves living through quite so many unprecedented events; economic and political; unseen for generations, if not centuries. It seems that more history is now on its way. Tonight commentators question the current Government's remaining lifespan. A General Election is coming fast.

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