Maria Miller’s feeble apology, BBC hotel jaunts and the trouble with responsible capitalism

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

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Maria Miller’s resignation was inevitable, as was that of the Lib Dem minister David Laws over his expenses in 2010 – though he at least got it over with quickly. David Cameron’s hope is that Miller will return to the cabinet “in due course”, which, in Laws’s case, turned out to be about two years and three months. The force of such resignations is thus diluted from the start. Politicians have never mastered the art of sincere contrition and unreserved apology except for things that happened long ago on other people’s watch, such as slavery, Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough.

Miller’s 72-word “apology” to the Commons included 18 words on how the standards committee had rejected the complaint against her by the Labour MP John Mann. She apologised to the committee for her “attitude”, not for her expenses claims. She thus implied that, even though she had been awfully rude, her expenses were beyond reproach. She wasn’t just innocent, but very innocent. Likewise, when Laws apologised, nearly half his words explained how, if he had done his expenses correctly, they would have cost taxpayers more. He apologised as his “own sternest critic”, who recognised “[his] duty” to ensure his claims were “in every sense above reproach”. He, too, was more than just innocent; he was impeccably moral and rigorously honourable.

Politics, by its nature, involves half-truths, double standards and self-delusion. As the Cambridge academic David Runciman has argued, “Liberal democratic politics are only sustainable if mixed with . . . dissimulation and pretence.” Making the best of a bad case is what politicians do. Paradoxically, the more unreserved the apology, the greater the insincerity. 

Think local

Everybody finds it laughable that Miller designated a rented cottage in her Basingstoke constituency as her “main home” rather than the grander Wimbledon house she owned. We all know that, if it weren’t a safe Tory seat, Miller, a former advertising executive married to a solicitor, wouldn’t dream of living in Basingstoke, any more than Peter Mandelson would have chosen Hartlepool as his home if he hadn’t been its MP. So why not demand a residential or birth qualification, like that once required of county cricketers, from anyone standing for election? That would make the Commons more representative and reverse the growing dominance of career politicians. Electoral reform would allow parties to nominate a national list of “additional members” according to the overall number of votes cast and they would be expected to take many front-bench positions. There would be numerous difficulties – constituencies would need to be larger, for instance – but our democracy is in dire straits and we need to restore voters’ confidence.

Swing low, sweet Marriott

Scarcely a week passes without papers such as the Mail and Telegraph highlighting BBC “extravagance”. How many of these stories are true? The other day, it was reported that, for the series Lambing Live, 65 BBC staff stayed in a “£279-a-night” Scottish country house hotel, the Dalmahoy Marriott. Where the £279 figure comes from I have no idea, given that the hotel currently advertises rooms from £107 to £184. As you’d see if you scrolled a long way down the article on the Telegraph website (but not newspaper), the corporation negotiated a discount, reducing the price per guest to £58. 

Autobidding for the people

Hoping not only to find higher returns on modest family savings but also to support small British businesses, I joined Funding Circle, a peer-to-peer site that supposedly bypasses rapacious middlemen, giving lenders and borrowers better rates than they would get from conventional investments. I envisaged helping companies that make or sell useful, life-enhancing products such as musical instruments, wheelchairs for the elderly, or starter motors for lifeboats.

I now find myself lending £20 apiece to a firework importer, a confectionery maker, a second-hand car dealer, a fast-food producer, a private health-care firm, a temporary labour agency, a manufacturer of UPVC windows and three property management companies. Only four trade in goods or services that I consider of genuine value: two housebuilders (one specialising in social housing), a legal aid firm and a pond fish shop. I detect few signs here of a “rebalancing” of the economy towards manufacturing. I use “autobid”, which means I pay the money, state my preferred risk level and leave the rest to an algorithm. If I wish to lend to firms I approve of, I have to research and assess them myself. Oscar Wilde said socialism took up too many evenings. I fear the same is true of responsible capitalism.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation