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Ancient and modern

Cicero could have told you all about the MPs’ standards committee

How the ancients dealt with the age-old question of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

As Sir Kevin Barron, chair of the MPs’ ‘Standards’ committee, steps down so that his own MP-packed body can adjudicate an allegation against him, the ‘Standards’ commissioner Kathryn Hudson says that some MPs are breaking rules because ‘they do not agree with them’. Are MPs simply not interested in their reputation?

Oligarchs at all levels know how to look after themselves (apparently no complaint against Ofsted has ever been upheld). However committed ancient Romans were to the rule of law, it was a commonplace that to reach the top of the greasy pole, one needed to make three fortunes: one to get there, one to fight subsequent charges of corruption and one to support you in exile after you were found out. Cicero began his prosecution against the corrupt provincial governor Verres by saying that the word on the street was that no one with influence (i.e. money) would ever be found guilty in a court controlled by fellow senators; he knew what he was up against when he argued that true glory depended on the identification of one’s personal interests with the state’s. The historian Tacitus brilliantly pointed out that when the state was at its most corrupt, laws were most numerous.


Perhaps the only culture in which one’s chances of getting away with it were least likely was that of classical Athens, where the citizen body, whether in Assembly or law-court, was sovereign and therefore the final arbiter over any such charges. All officials were constantly subject to public scrutiny and at the end of their term of office their record was assessed. Punishments ranged from fines through exile to death. No House of Lords for them.

While MPs remain accountable only to themselves, the problem will persist. As for their ‘reputation’, the word derives from the Latin reputatio, ‘a consideration to be taken into account when drawing up a financial statement’.

Hard not to laugh, eh?


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