Alex Massie

Expenses Backlash Extra! Guilty Party Named!

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The problem with being a newspaper columnist is that you have to keep finding new stuff to say. New is more important than better, you understand. So when everyone is outraged (and, hell, justifiably so for once!) by the spectacle of MPs' outrageous abuse of the spirit, and often the letter, of their expense arrangements then, sure as eggs is eggs, you know some columnist is going to take the contrary view and argue that it's all a lot of fuss over not very much.

David Aaronovitch has nobly decided that this is his role this week, inviting us to cool our passions and admire his sagacity as he scolds the public for daring to be angry. Remarkably, Aaronovitch concludes that the public, not parliamentarians, are the guilty ones. If only the little people wouldn't get so upset, you see.

Naturally, Macauley's line to the effect that “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” is trotted out, though personally I'm more afraid of MPs periodical fits of morality than I am of the general public. After all, that brings us  - to pluck some examples at random - such terrible legislation as the Dangerous Dogs act, the hunting ban, the smoking ban and our gun laws.

And, to be clear, when an MP signs an expenses claim for gardening or for having the moat at his country house dredged it is simply not possible for this to be an honest claim given that the regulations MPs have writte for themselves state, sans equivocation, that "the MP's signature verifies that the expenditure was wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in the performance of their duties". In other words, as I said yesterday, we are governed by a parliament of thieves.

But the sage Aaronovitch tells us to calm down and get a sense of perspective. If we want a democracy, he says, we must be prepared to pay for it. And so we must. Why this should require the public to tolerate the current scandalous arrangements is, however, something that is left unexplained.

Then again, there's something rum about the Times these days since Rachel Sylvester also offers MPs a generous measure of sympathy today and she too suggests that MPs are underpaid. Doubtless they are - relative to newspaper columnists. but as Chris Dillow reminds one MPs are actually amongst the best-paid people in Britain. And that's before you consider their allowances or the income they may earn from outside jobs (which jobs, incidentally, I think they should be allowed to keep since rendering a verdict on an MPs diligence and performance should be a matter for the electorate, not the Commons authorities).

Counterintuitive newspaper columns are all very well and good but sometimes being counterintuitive is just a fancy way of being stupid.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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