There is surely a simple solution to the scandal of MPs’ second homes and expenses. The parliamentary authorities themselves should in future provide and pay directly for the necessary accommodation.
In London, they should buy a couple of large buildings, within easy reach of Westminster (preferably south of the river, where prices are lower) and convert them into one-bedroom flats of roughly the same standard as those available for social housing.
In each constituency, the authorities should buy somewhere modest with office facilities attached, and make this home for whoever happens to be the local MP, rather as 10 Downing Street is the permanent home for prime ministers. MPs and their families could then buy whatever properties they wished, wherever they wished, but out of their own pockets.
No doubt we shall be told that it would be below MPs’ dignity to stay in what amounts to hostels or tied cottages, and that we shall end up with “lower-quality” representatives, whatever that means. But I am afraid MPs, in the popular mind, have become like bankers: it is impossible to imagine anything worse, commanding less public confidence, than what we have.
Perhaps it would help, though, if we gave more credit to the relatively low-spending MPs, instead of always highlighting the profligate villains. So let’s hear it for Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary: 491st highest (despite the distance of his Doncaster North constituency from London) for travel expenses and 537th overall. I have previously recommended that Miliband make the grand, if pointless, gesture of principled resignation that we all crave. His impeccable expenses strengthen my conviction that he is the man for the job.
As I pondered the Easter teachers’ conferences alongside the fallout from police officers’ treatment of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 conference demonstration, a curious contrast struck me.
As long as I can remember, all the main political parties have felt it necessary to defend the police while, certainly in the past 30 years, they have berated teachers at every opportunity. Both groups are public servants performing vital tasks and, given that a certain coercion is required in both cases, they require a measure of authority to perform effectively. Yet criticism of one is treated as tantamount to sedition, while criticism of the other, as incompetent, time-serving and subversive, is part of the common coin of political discourse.
Perhaps because my spouse is an ex-teacher, I tend to think criticism of teachers is often unjust and demoralising. But I accept that, in a democracy, the standards and content of schooling should be a matter of public debate. People – particularly at teachers’ union conferences – often say things like “We should take education out of politics”. That is exactly what we have done with policing, with the dire result that the police think they are free to beat up anybody who gets in their way without having to pay the consequences. Even during the miners’ strike, when the police clearly played a partisan role rather than just trying to keep the peace, Labour MPs’ criticism of their actions was muted. We should even things up – not by taking education out of the political arena, but by bringing policing right into it.
What struck me most about the New Statesman’s recent God issues, and the episcopal messages over the Easter festival, was how eagerly Christians now embrace the role of victim. I suppose any religion founded on an act of martyrdom will be inclined to seek victimhood, but I am surprised by how often words such as marginalisation and persecution crop up. “The chattering classes who really rule Britain become ever more shrill in their sneering at Christianity,” says a Daily Mail heading over an article by A N Wilson,
“. . . we should no longer be cowed by these secular zealots.”
Yet we allow bishops to sit in parliament and we finance church schools from taxes. The BBC’s Easter Sunday schedules give the lie to claims that Christianity is being marginalised. BBC1 offered 160 minutes in the morning, including an Easter Eucharist, a live broadcast from the Vatican and a programme about Pope John Paul II, plus another 40 minutes of Songs of Praise in the evening. Radio 4 was more or less wall-to-wall Jesus from 5.43am to 9am. Wilson’s secular zealots must be on the commercial channels, which didn’t broadcast a solitary canticle.
The trouble with Christianity – in this country at any rate – is that it doesn’t have much commercial clout; banks fall over themselves to sponsor football matches, not Sunday sermons. Outside America, capitalism has done more damage to religion than Richard Dawkins could ever achieve.
One of the reasons I prefer Rugby Union to football is that the latter is so drearily predictable. By this time of the season, everything has reverted to normal. Hull, earlier in the Premier League top six, are now threatened by relegation, as everyone expected after their promotion from the league below. Tottenham, earlier in the relegation zone, are now in mid-table as usual. The big four (Arsenal, Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea), earlier threatened by Aston Villa, are now well clear. Villa and Everton will be fifth and sixth as they were last season. In fact, of the 20 Premier League teams, only two seem likely to finish more than six places from where they were last season (that’s counting the three promoted sides as occupying the bottom three places in 2007-2008). In rugby’s Premiership, by contrast, last season’s champions, Wasps, are in the bottom half while Harlequins, potential winners this year, were relegated as recently as 2005. This is because rugby, like American football, imposes a cap on each club’s salary spending, so that the richest can’t hog the best players. Odd that the toffs’ game adopts such an egalitarian measure, while the workers’ game eschews it.