Leader: Ten years on from the MPs’ expenses scandal

The impact was explosive: several government ministers resigned, the Speaker was forced to quit, two peers and five MPs were imprisoned, and dozens more stood down.

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In May 2009, the Daily Telegraph received a leak that would change British politics and enrage the electorate. The previous year, the courts had ruled that the expense claims of MPs should be made public, but the House of Commons wanted to release heavily redacted versions of the expense forms. Before long a disk containing every claim was passed to the newspaper.

The contents ranged from the comic – a glittery lavatory seat, a garlic peeling and cutting set, and the notorious ornamental duck house – to the criminal. As William Lewis, the Telegraph’s then editor-in-chief, recalls in this week’s cover story, the impact was explosive. Several government ministers resigned. Michael Martin, then the Speaker, was forced to quit. Two peers and five MPs were imprisoned, and dozens more stood down.

The scandal has had consequences that few expected. Trust in politics had already been damaged by the invasion of Iraq and the financial crash of 2008. Here was evidence that the political system was not only corrupt, but seemingly rigged against ordinary people. The result has been a deep and enduring distrust of politicians and public institutions. In the aftermath of the scandal, those MPs left standing pledged to restore parliament’s reputation. Yet people’s disenfranchisement from our political process has only intensified. Britain’s constitutional settlement is in crisis. The crude majoritarianism of first-past-the-post and an unelected House of Lords deprive millions of representation. A haphazard devolution settlement lacks the power to correct regional inequalities.

For our politicians, tackling these challenges is neither easy nor electorally advantageous. However, inaction has come at a cost. The anger of 2009 has found only destructive expression – most notably through Brexit. Good parliamentarians are loathed and their dedication to public service is impugned. Theresa May has legitimised these sentiments. In cynical appeals to the public, she has cast MPs as wilfully frustrating Brexit, even as some are threatened with violence. Reform of our politics cannot afford to wait another decade. As Mr Lewis writes: “The time has come for a constitution that works for ordinary people.”

We have long argued for the sort of measures he proposes: a fairer, more proportional electoral system, the abolition of the House of Lords, the devolution of greater power to our nations and regions, and the introduction of a written constitution. This would go some way to restoring public faith in institutions that have too often appeared to prioritise self-interest over transparency and change. It would redistribute power from extremist party members to voters. Populists could no longer reasonably portray our democratic conversation as elitist and out of touch, as they have done all too easily since 2009.

If both sides of the Brexit debate are serious about giving effect to the will of the people and changing Britain for the better, this ought to be their priority. If they continue to shirk the challenge, the consequences for our democracy could be graver than those that followed the expenses scandal.

Robinson Crusoe’s England

When it was first published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was instantly recognised as a work of metaphor as well as a stirring yarn. In the figure of Crusoe its early readers saw quintessentially English traits. Here was a man who survived by his own hard work and ingenuity; a symbol of the nascent British empire who, when shipwrecked, created a miniature and orderly island empire of his own; a benign master to his black servant Friday; a devout Christian; an adversary to the godless cannibals; and an upholder of the natural order in restoring a captain to his ship in the face of mutineers.

Such dauntless characteristics are still invoked in political discourse today, so it is worth remembering that – as Philip Ball points out in our spring books special – James Joyce, an interested foreigner, saw the book’s hero in a different light. “The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit” was in Crusoe, he said, “the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” The past 300 years have done little to close the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal