“A Very British Revolution – the expenses scandal and how to save our democracy” By Martin Bell. Icon Books
“Honesty, integrity, openness, objectivity, leadership, accountability and selflessness” – these were the seven principles of public life set out by Lord Nolan’s committee standards in public life in its 1995 report into the sleaze scandals of the Tory years. MPs even were given a wallet-sized card with the Nolan principles to remind them. A kind of ‘ethical credit card’, as the former independent MP Martin Bell, described it. Unfortunately, they have maxed out and have no moral credit left.
Bell was, himself, one of the products of the last great parliamentary sleaze scandal. The former BBC war correspondent, won a famous victory in the 1997 general election campaign against the Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, regarded then as one of the sleaziest members around because of his allegedly receiving £20,000 in brown envelopes from the Harrods boss Mohammed Al Fayed. And no, the years haven’t softened Martin Bell’s contempt for Hamilton. He doesn’t accept that the expenses scandals retrospectively lessens the degree his wrongdoing.
But whatever happened to the Nolan principles? The expenses scandal of 2009 revealed our elected members to be dishonest, secretive, evasive, selfish and lacking any sense of moral judgement let alone integrity. The failure of leadership is symbolised by the Prime Minister himself having to pay back £12,000 in cleaning and gardening expenses wrongly claimed. Sleaze nineties style was largely about taking sums of money from outside interests to perform parliamentary duties. It was cash for questions, cash for amendments, cash for access. Now it is cash for duck houses, cash for second homes, cash for porn films, cash for almost anything – an even sleazier form of sleaze. Bell doesn’t mince his words condemning the “corrupt” politicians who have “lost our trust because they picket our pockets”. But he doesn’t answer the central question of just how MPs – Labour especially – failed to learn the lessons of what went before.
I spent the winter of 1994/95 attending the weekly Nolan hearings on sleaze. A succession of shamefaced MPs, lobbyists, businessmen, civil servants came before Lord Nolan’s untouchables and insisted that they were ‘just playing the rules…doing what everyone else did…learned lessons…won’t do it again, honest’. We naively thought that the establishment of a Commissioner for Standards would ensure that parliament cleaned up its act. Clearly it did nothing of the kind. Bell rightly focusses on the shocking treatment in 2002 of the tough minded Standards Commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, who was driven from office after she pursued the former Defence Secretary, Dr John Reid, for allegedly misusing his parliamentary allowance and intimidating party workers.
Bell had left parliament by 2002, but in a sense he shares some of the collective responsibility for the expenses scandals. As an MP, Bell sat on the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which was set up after the Nolan Report to ensure, well, standards would be upheld. They clearly were not. Should he have blown the whistle louder? He says himself that he believed the lax expenses was an accident waiting to happen. “I believed that the regulatory regime such as it was would on day hit the buffers”, he writes, “I had no idea the crash would be so sudden”. Could he have pulled the communication cord perhaps? Well as politicians always say, you’d have to ask him that. The point is that his example was not enough.
Bell wrote in the heat of the 2009 scandal, as the Daily Telegraph was delivering daily bulletins on MPs’ corruption. He believed that Britain was undergoing a revolution – that the crisis presented a “once in a lifetime opportunity to revive our democracy” in a very British, constitutional way. The clearing out of the sleaze generation at the next election, and the large number of young newbie MPs, believes, should ensure that parliament will itself be renewed. He calls for transparency, electoral reform, open primaries for selecting candidates and, of course, the adoption of a strict regime on expenses, similar to that which exists in the army.
I’m afraid that looks like wishful thinking. MPs seem incapable as a class of learning from the past since they don’t appear to believe they have done anything wrong.. One of the most astonishing aspects of the whole expenses scandal is the almost wilful disregard MPs showed for their own moral and political well being. Surely they must have known, as they bought their flat screen TVs and flipped their second homes, that they were doing wrong, even if they appeared to be within the rules. Actually, they were no where near within the rules.The House of Commons Green Book makes clear that only expenses can only be claimed if they are “incurred wholly, necessarily and exclusively in the performance of their parliamentary duties”. It says nothing about duck houses and property empires. If only MPs had looked at themselves through the eyes of their constituents, most of whom live in low income households where, if you fiddle your benefits, you go directly to jail and don’t pas Go. But no. Like the Bourbons, they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.