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Rediscovering the Great British Republican Tradition


For a Civic and Constitutional Republic



Issue No 36 Friday 15 May 2009




This week


·        The MP’s Expenses Scandal. Just Give Them Something Important To Do


News Stories

Highlighting  news stories important to the Civic Republican view, particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.





·        The MP’s Expenses Scandal. Just Give Them Something Important To Do


The great thing about the revelations regarding MP’s claims for illegitimate expenses that it is a nice clear cut story with clear villains and clear … err, well, perhaps, it is not too clear who the other guys are. Everyone seems to be on the make. MPs are all a shower. The manipulating of expenses claims to feather nests appears to be rife and although at present only about eighty have been proven guilty the general sense is that it is only a matter of time before many of the rest are found wanting.

If there are good guys in this sorry saga, it seems they can only be us – the great British public. We are the ones who have been cheated and lied to by those whom we elected in faith to represent our interests in parliament. It is uniquely our right to be indignant, disappointed, betrayed and even vengeful. So, a beautifully clear scenario. Where it will lead to is less easy to say. Something needs fixing. But is it the “system” of assessing expense claims that needs fixing? Is it the government for fostering a climate of greed? Is it fiddling around with constitutional procedures? Or is it good old human nature itself that needs an overhaul and a thorough dusting down?

In trying to formulate a response to the news of the MP’s behaviour a major problem is the shear omnipresence of the “corruption” if that is the right word. In choosing our members of parliament we necessarily have to choose a member of the human race and generally speaking a British version at that. Are we not, by so roundly condemning the whole lot, in danger of condemning ourselves? And if a different kind of human raw material is needed to put forward for candidates in our chief democratic institution, where on earth might this material be found?

From the Civic Republican point of view this problem is as old as the hills. Civic Republicans have always stressed that the primary political and social concern should be to find a way of internalizing virtue into the polity. Virtue in this sense has always meant amongst other things the elimination or substantial reduction of corruption.

What these principles have always held is that in order to cultivate virtue in our society we have to design our institutions accordingly. These principles are necessary in a secular society such as we now have. In previous times the rewards for virtue could be had in the after life. But as fewer and fewer people are prepared to put that element into the calculations governing their behavior we have to find something that is going to be effective prior to that period of our existence. Of course, a human being has a conscience and this is an effective governor of behaviour in many ways but it surely needs, or would profit from, a nice helping hand. This is where correctly designed institutions come in. They place our innate sense of conscience and morality in a social and cultural context that then amplify it and validate it. Without this we have to rely on people being either saints or stoics and we cannot all be either of these. At least, not much of the time.

So where does this leave our poor compromised MPs? This problem is about money and the matter of MP’s pay is significant. Let us state a simple truth - for an institution or company to function its members must be adequately rewarded. Money is not everything but it is a lot. If people in any job are not paid enough the result is demoralization.

Comparisons of MP’s pay with that of doctors or teachers and others are frequently made, but these comparisons overlook the fact that politicians have a quite unique type of job that makes it difficult to compare with any “normal” walk of life. There are four particular reasons why the level of pay is important for MPs.

·         We don’t want only rich people with independent means becoming MPs

·         MPs have to be relatively well paid to discourage corruption.

·         An MP’s job tenure is nearly always precarious. Most of us in our chosen jobs are not subject to regular democratic reselection that may be influenced by factors that we have nothing to do with and are outside our control. No “normal” jobs are subject to popular voting.

·         Furthermore, there is no formal qualification for being a politician and most people who become politicians give up, or put on hold, a career in a different field and this must in many cases be the subject of hard personal and family searching. We have to look at not only what people gain from being politicians but also what they have had to give up.

The response of the general public to the expenses row has been strong but it is impossible not to believe that there is something deeper underlying the indignity expressed. The Civic Republican response may seem just a little blasé by comparison. Yes, it is appalling that our representatives should behave in the way that many have, but given the current political and moral environment it is perhaps no more than what we should expect. The row is part of an unholy political and moral mess we are in, and this finds a deeper and broader base than the conduct of MPs. If we are going to at least try to get some perspective on the row whilst we are still in the midst of it there are three things we should say.

·         One, it is important to have an idea where we are going with this. With all us, journalists and public, ganging up together to attack and expose politicians we are in danger of creating a “them and us” situation. The environment under which MPs work if not created by the electorate it is something it has allowed to happen.

·         The second related point is that there is an unspoken complicity in all of this. It is impossible to believe that the irregular accounting was not widely known beforehand. And yet it was tolerated. The “great exposure” is surely a myth. Everybody in the know must have been aware of what was going on and no one said anything because … well, maybe there were other stories, or no one was interested, or the information was not all collected in one place as it is now.

·         The third point is that in sifting through the affairs of others we may demean ourselves and that means we demean our society and our democracy. Prurience is not an edifying quality under any circumstances.

But if the general response to “Expenses-gate” may need some time to achieve a better sense of proportion the following stands out clearly. This issue, as the major story of the day, follows on the heels of that of overpaid bankers and their irresponsible squandering of the country’s wealth. What both these issues display, albeit in different ways and in different dimension, is a loss of morality – a deficit of virtue. For this we have to blame successive British governments. Since the Thatcher principles of “no society” and “looking after number one” became the overriding government creed, morality and virtue have not had much of a look in. The artificial-boom and very-really-bust philosophy of New Labour has underlined the lack of morality in government. Fiddling expenses in this atmosphere must have seemed a fairly innocent activity to many elected members.

But it was ex LibDem leader Charles Kennedy who perhaps got nearest to the essential reason why we have the expenses problem when he cited a traditional proverb on This Week yesterday; “The devil makes work for idle hands.” The House of Commons has, as been noted many times before in these newsletters, less and less power. Under our constitutional arrangements all the power goes to number ten, the cabinet office and the prime minister. Members of the house are dictated to by the party whips. Have over six hundred ambitious adults elected with the promise that they can change the country according to ideals they may once have had and then just push them around at the behest of the prime minister and give them little real power, and you are asking for trouble of one kind or another. We certainly are seeing trouble of one kind.

Unless we have real change we will sometime probably get the other as well.


If you wish to comment on these articles or any other matter email


……. …….until next week
































































































































































































*It is not that Republics can’t change should the long term will of the people desire it, but that on fundamental constitutional issues such as this they only change gradually. Republicans are conservatives (with a small “c”).







































































*This practice has lead over the last few years to an intense crisis for the bank buying the "security" often did not know how well the loan was secured. In a huge number of cases this has been not very well and so the banks who bought the "securities" were taken for billions, such is the level of their incompetence and greed.









































*See P25 The Grip Of Death by Michael Rowbotham published 1997.And up to date figures for April 2008 show HBoS holds just 6% capital against debt "assets". The figure for Barclays is a measly 5.1%. (Moneyweek 2 May 2008. p.4). Exactly how much of this "capital" represents solid "non-toxic" capital assets is a question many would want to ask. The banks themselves are unlikely to know.