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Speaker Martin’s had his day.

Many years ago, when I was a hack in the Westminster Lobby, a newly-elected woman MP came up to tell me of her surprise when, on her first day in parliament, she was taken aside by Michael Martin and friends and shown how to fill in her expenses. Had to get the priorities right after all. Some things are too important to be left to chance.

She went on to become a minister, he became Speaker of the House of Commons, but for all the grandeur of his surroundings, Michael Martin always remained essentially a shop steward – a guardian of the pay and conditions for the amalgamated union of MPs and allied trades. He’s a kind of parliamentary Red Robbo – with a touch of Goodfellas. And that is why many MPs stood by him and do so today – out of fear and affection – as the clamour rises for him to step down from the Speaker’s chair because of liberal use of expenses.

He is also Clyde-built and doesn’t like hacks likeme poking their snooty noses into MPs’ business. After a comic-opera altercation in the Members Lobby in Westminster about a piece I had written about how MPs harvested their expenses, Martin once reported me to the Deputy Serjeant at Arms. He didn’t chop my head off, but it was a close run thing. Nowadays Martin has the top-drawer libel lawyers, Carter-Ruck, employed at public expense to defend his image. So let me say right away that Mr Speaker is a man of impeccable integrity, a teetotaler, who I’m sure has never fiddled his expenses.

But you have to look at the current expenses row from Martin’s trade union mindset. To him, a job’s a job, all jobs have perks associated with them, and there’s no reason why MPs should be any different. So long as they are obeying the rules, it is nobody’s business but theirs.

So, he has claimed £75,000 in accommodation allowances for a house he already owns without a mortgage. That is within rules, and lots of other MPs do exactly the same. So, he charges parliament £7,595 for using a room in his house as a constituency office, even though his house isn’t actually in his constituency. Again, fully declared and passed by the Parliamentary Fee Office. His wife used taxis to go shopping, but how many business executives can say they have never used taxis for personal use? He has used air miles for family trips? Oh, come on…

Now, I don’t have a lot of deal of sympathy for Michael Martin, who has not been a great Speaker and after nearly eight years has overstayed his welcome in the Commons. He has also been an obstacle to the reform of parliament and the introduction of freedom of information to Westminster . However, I can understand – well sort of – why he might be indignant at being painted a sleazeball for sticking to the rules. But times change, and Speaker Martin hasn’t changed with them. We are living in a period in which the Palace of Westminster is being dragged kicking and screaming into the new era of transparency and accountability, that this Labour government itself initiated following the sleaze scandals of the 1990s. As with the dodgy donations row, which brought politicians like Wendy Alexander to the brink of resignation, Labour politicians never thought that the new strictures really applied to them. Now they know.

Actually, a lot of Speaker Martin’s problems really began in Holyrood. It was the Scottish parliament that introduced proper financial accountability to British politics. It’s no accident that the kind of troubles with which he is now afflicted are instantly recognisable to anyone who has been following our petty scandals. David McLetchie, the Scottish Tory leader, had to resign over his use of taxis; Henry McLeish over subletting his constituency offices. There has been a long-running Holyrood row over MSPs like the LibDem Tavish Scott allegedly profiteering on second homes bought with their parliamentary allowances (a row which received a bizarre twist with the Sunday Herald’s revelations about the Deputy Presiding Officer, Trish Godman, buying her imprisoned son’s flat in Holyrood).

MSPs in the Scottish parliament have learned the hard way that, in modern politics, you really do have to be “whiter than white” as Tony Blair famously put it. Just sticking to the letter of the rules isn’t enough. You have to ask what ordinary voters would make of the rules you play by. Is it right for MPs to use tens of thousands of pounds of public money to invest in the property market? Well, no it isn’t, when so many young families can’t afford a first home let alone a second.

Is it acceptable to employ wives and relatives as researchers and secretaries? Well, the jury is still out on this one, but the Derek Conway affair demonstrated that this practice – which would not be allowed in the US Congress – is no longer safe, and that MPs have to be very, very careful to ensure that the beneficiaries of their nepotism actually do the work.

I find the scandal of Mrs Martin’s taxi use – the cause of Mr Speaker’s latest crisis – more sad than bad. On Saturday, Speaker Martin’s spin-doctor, Mike Grannat, resigned because he had unwittingly misled the press about the nature of Mrs Martin’s shopping expeditions. He had been told – and had in turn told journalists – that these were on Palace business and that an official was always with her. Turned out that the “official” was actually the Martin’s housekeeper.

It is commendable that the Speaker’s wife is so down-to-earth that she takes her cleaner as a companion. It probably never occurred to her, or her husband, that she was doing anything wrong. Indeed, she probably wasn’t, because there is nothing in the rules that specifically precludes the use of taxis by the Speaker’s spouse. But there is now – and the departure of the spin-doctor must surely be the beginning of the end for Brother Martin.

There has been a deal of snobbishness in the way that certain Tory columnist have ridiculed Martin because of his accent and his Scottishness. There is a class issue here. But by his personal conduct, and by his unwillingness to make MPs open and transparent about their personal use of public funds, he has shown that he is out of touch and out of time. The days when MPs could hand in expense accounts without receipts is long gone. When they regarded their parliamentary expenses as part of their salary. It’s time for this superannuated shop steward to be bumped up to the Lords – where he will no doubt be canny in looking after their privileges.

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About iain2macwhirter

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2 thoughts on “Speaker Martin’s had his day.

  1. An Open Letter to The Speaker of the House of Commons,The Rt Honourable Michael Martin MPHi Speke,I hope you don’t mind if I adopt an informal writing style.  They call it smart/cashual.  Also, forgive me if I presume to offer some advice.  You don’t have to take it.  I shan’t be offended.Like you, I hate the ruling political classes.  Especially their posh accents;  AND their looking-down-their-noses as though someone has just far*ed.   (With their rich diet, they have it easy.)  But if we are honest, it’s better to smile with benign understanding of their little foibles.   (Oh! And stand upwind.)It is totally out of order for them to accuse you of fiddling your expenses big time just ‘cos you are a poor working class boy wot done good.  But I have some ideas which may assist you turn things to your advantage and rout ‘the ol’ enemy’.  Or should we call them NuEnemy?As Speaker, independence is at the root of your problems.  I don’t know how you stand the strain.  Any sniff of your attending a meeting in a smoke-filled room with a cabal of scheming politicians is instantly seized upon as treachery.  But how else can trade union MP’s demonstrate their solidarity?   After all, there are so few of them these days,  you can fit them comfortably into a small antechamber.Why shouldn’t you refuse to allow some disagreeable, pompous puffed up MP from asking questions chosen only to embarrass your wing of the Party?   Why shouldn’t you hold secret meetings about MP’s expenses and ‘top-ups’?  Why should every constituent have the right to know how much you bung your wife?  If she’s happy, it’s a matter of marital confidentiality.  AND the Commission chaired by yourself  will doubtless draw up rules that are totally transparent to you.  You have proved yourself to have been most punctilious in your application of the principle of precedence, if not prescience, when it comes to observing traditions of the House.  So much so, you are probably one of the most conservative MP’s we have.But…  It is most unfortunate that you happened to be Speaker when the public belatedly stumbled upon the fact that our political ethos is dominated by pragmatism, ambiguity and secrecy, not to mention calculated deception.  After all, politicians and schoolchildren alike have learnt from those masters of the art in the TGWU (Tony and Gordon Working United).  The Snobs don’t like the fact that you are married to one of the most attractive of MP’s WAGS;  are granted splendid grace-and-favour  accommodation;  are driven around in a fleet of limosines; and, what is more, are an upholder of the principles of family life by sharing your perks with your family and friends.  It’s obvious that the 95% of MP’s who were NOT present to cheer you the other day – “Order, order” – are seething with jealousy and envy.When you are bullied the way you have been, I can understand that your natural instinct is to complain to your friends that your adversaries are turning on the traditional working class and proper socialists (in contrast to NuLabour) and so on.  But this is a mistake.  And weakens your position.We must change tactics.  We must bring back inverted snobbery.  You have the advantage of already looking down on all those snobs on the benches below from your Speaker’s Chair.  You already occupy the higher moral ground.  I suggest you be a little more aggressive.  Try throwing in the odd inverted-snob comment.  Jibe even.  (Let me know if you want some suggestions). The MP’s may not like it.  But the press will love it.  And will fall over themselves to be first to quote you on their front pages.  Nothing changes. Except the target.On the other hand, if you continue to let matters develop out of control, you may find that your problems escalate rapidly, until your wife can take no more.Your working class supporters may turn increasingly against you, being jealous of your affluence.  And feeling betrayed when they note how much poorer they are under Labour, compared to the middle classes.  You may even become an icon of scoffing Scottishness, leading to a further fall in Labour support south of the border, and continued drift to the SNP north of it.You probably think I am about to urge you to quit.  But I would not be so presumptuous.   Not yet, at any rate.  But this is, I beliee, an opportunity to right – indeed, rectify – any wrongs which may have been inadvertently committed by all parties to this sorry affair.Bringing forward your timetable from October to July is a sound move.  To bring it further forward would be even smarter.  I’ll tell you why.The ‘scandal’ which has enveloped you is likely to play big in the forthcoming local elections, including the London Mayoral election.  Red Ken is worried.  He is even claiming to have reduced his alcohol consumption during working hours.  Unless you resolve the MP’s Expenses Gravy Train Scandal before the elections, the Prime Minister  may have to call in the rail engineers to cause some diversions and delays.  Labour could implode.And the finger will be pointing at you.Now is the time for you to grasp the initiative.1 Announce that you intend to publish recommendations by 1 April – matching Cameron’s target.  It can be done.  Where there a will, there’s a way.2 Choose a completely new group of members for your committee, favouring those who have spoken out against the status quo and (preferably) are, if not squeaky-clean, cliquey-clean, sneaky-clean, and leaky-clean, no worse than streaky-clean.  3 Satisfy yourself that the new rules would meet with the approval of the public.4 Make sure all the rules are crystal clear, with minimal room for discretion.5 The new rules must be stringent, e.g. receipts for EVERY penny claimed.  (If it’s not  worth asking for a receipt, it’s not worth claiming.) 6 Ensure all expenses are vetted by an independent body.7 Publish all claims approved.8 Suggest an amnesty for all illegal claims made before 1 April.  That should divert MP’s  complaints. 9 Have a word with Jack (Straw) first to see that he approves.10 Have a word with the other Mr Blair.  Is the Met about to commence investigations? He  may have been tipped off.  Something to do with shredders, perhaps? If you do all the above, I can guarantee that in no time at all, the Labour Party will bound ahead in the polls.  And you will be scot-free.You might even get your Lordship.A Critical Friend,Transparency

    Posted by A Critical Friend, Transparency | March 5, 2008, 3:05 am
  2. An Open Letter to The Speaker of the House of Commons,The Rt Honourable Michael Martin MPHi Speke,I hope you don’t mind if I adopt an informal writing style. They call it smart/cashual. Also, forgive me if I presume to offer some advice. You don’t have to take it. I shan’t be offended.Like you, I hate the ruling political classes. Especially their posh accents; AND their looking-down-their-noses as though someone has just far*ed. (With their rich diet, they have it easy.) But if we are honest, it’s better to smile with benign understanding of their little foibles. (Oh! And stand upwind.)It is totally out of order for them to accuse you of fiddling your expenses big time just ‘cos you are a poor working class boy wot done good. But I have some ideas which may assist you turn things to your advantage and rout ‘the ol’ enemy’. Or should we call them NuEnemy?As Speaker, independence is at the root of your problems. I don’t know how you stand the strain. Any sniff of your attending a meeting in a smoke-filled room with a cabal of scheming politicians is instantly seized upon as treachery. But how else can trade union MP’s demonstrate their solidarity? After all, there are so few of them these days, you can fit them comfortably into a small antechamber.Why shouldn’t you refuse to allow some disagreeable, pompous puffed up MP from asking questions chosen only to embarrass your wing of the Party? Why shouldn’t you hold secret meetings about MP’s expenses and ‘top-ups’? Why should every constituent have the right to know how much you bung your wife? If she’s happy, it’s a matter of marital confidentiality. AND the Commission chaired by yourself will doubtless draw up rules that are totally transparent to you. You have proved yourself to have been most punctilious in your application of the principle of precedence, if not prescience, when it comes to observing traditions of the House. So much so, you are probably one of the most conservative MP’s we have.But… It is most unfortunate that you happened to be Speaker when the public belatedly stumbled upon the fact that our political ethos is dominated by pragmatism, ambiguity and secrecy, not to mention calculated deception. After all, politicians and schoolchildren alike have learnt from those masters of the art in the TGWU (Tony and Gordon Working United). The Snobs don’t like the fact that you are married to one of the most attractive of MP’s WAGS; are granted splendid grace-and-favour accommodation; are driven around in a fleet of limosines; and, what is more, are an upholder of the principles of family life by sharing your perks with your family and friends. It’s obvious that the 95% of MP’s who were NOT present to cheer you the other day – “Order, order” – are seething with jealousy and envy.When you are bullied the way you have been, I can understand that your natural instinct is to complain to your friends that your adversaries are turning on the traditional working class and proper socialists (in contrast to NuLabour) and so on. But this is a mistake. And weakens your position.We must change tactics. We must bring back inverted snobbery. You have the advantage of already looking down on all those snobs on the benches below from your Speaker’s Chair. You already occupy the higher moral ground. I suggest you be a little more aggressive. Try throwing in the odd inverted-snob comment. Jibe even. (Let me know if you want some suggestions). The MP’s may not like it. But the press will love it. And will fall over themselves to be first to quote you on their front pages. Nothing changes. Except the target.On the other hand, if you continue to let matters develop out of control, you may find that your problems escalate rapidly, until your wife can take no more.Your working class supporters may turn increasingly against you, being jealous of your affluence. And feeling betrayed when they note how much poorer they are under Labour, compared to the middle classes. You may even become an icon of scoffing Scottishness, leading to a further fall in Labour support south of the border, and continued drift to the SNP north of it.You probably think I am about to urge you to quit. But I would not be so presumptuous. Not yet, at any rate. But this is, I beliee, an opportunity to right – indeed, rectify – any wrongs which may have been inadvertently committed by all parties to this sorry affair.Bringing forward your timetable from October to July is a sound move. To bring it further forward would be even smarter. I’ll tell you why.The ‘scandal’ which has enveloped you is likely to play big in the forthcoming local elections, including the London Mayoral election. Red Ken is worried. He is even claiming to have reduced his alcohol consumption during working hours. Unless you resolve the MP’s Expenses Gravy Train Scandal before the elections, the Prime Minister may have to call in the rail engineers to cause some diversions and delays. Labour could implode.And the finger will be pointing at you.Now is the time for you to grasp the initiative.1 Announce that you intend to publish recommendations by 1 April – matching Cameron’s target. It can be done. Where there a will, there’s a way.2 Choose a completely new group of members for your committee, favouring those who have spoken out against the status quo and (preferably) are, if not squeaky-clean, cliquey-clean, sneaky-clean, and leaky-clean, no worse than streaky-clean. 3 Satisfy yourself that the new rules would meet with the approval of the public.4 Make sure all the rules are crystal clear, with minimal room for discretion.5 The new rules must be stringent, e.g. receipts for EVERY penny claimed. (If it’s not worth asking for a receipt, it’s not worth claiming.) 6 Ensure all expenses are vetted by an independent body.7 Publish all claims approved.8 Suggest an amnesty for all illegal claims made before 1 April. That should divert MP’s complaints. 9 Have a word with Jack (Straw) first to see that he approves.10 Have a word with the other Mr Blair. Is the Met about to commence investigations? He may have been tipped off. Something to do with shredders, perhaps? If you do all the above, I can guarantee that in no time at all, the Labour Party will bound ahead in the polls. And you will be scot-free.You might even get your Lordship.A Critical Friend,Transparency7:05 PM

    Posted by A Critical Friend, Transparency | March 5, 2008, 3:17 am

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