Editorial: Of expenses and legacies

Despite the shocking, and occasionally hilarious details, I can’t help thinking that there is at least a hint of hypocrisy surrounding the publication of MPs expenses and allowances over the past few weeks.

Firstly, there is the hypocrisy of the journalists, who are themselves a notorious bunch of expenses junkies – indeed, are often encouraged to be by their employers for tax reasons that I don’t even begin to understand. Then there is the hypocrisy of The Daily Telegraph – the newspaper that is unfolding the saga for us – whose multi-millionaire owners, the Barclay brothers, live in a castle in the Channel Islands, so avoid paying tax in the UK.

Finally, there is the hypocrisy of the public themselves, whose response to this story could not have been more vociferous if it had been discovered that MPs were involved in some kind of ritualistic animal sacrifice. Which they probably haven’t.

I think it is fair to say that if our employer offers to foot the bill for something that we would otherwise have to pay for, most of us would say “yes please”. Even if that employer was the state.

Take Douglas Hogg for example – the Tory MP who claimed £2,000 to have his moat cleaned. It sounds ridiculous. It is ridiculous. But on the other hand, I have a moat. Well, it’s not really a moat; it’s a drain round the back of my house. But it’s always full of water. And it certainly needs cleaned out once in a while.

Now, if my employer offered to pay for that to be done, I would probably say that it was unnecessary, since it only takes me 10 minutes. But if it was a considerably bigger drain, and it was within the rules to do so, then I might well take the money. And if my colleagues were all having theirs done, then you bet I would.

Ok, so it’s not quite the same, but you see my point: most of us take what we can get, so long as it is within the rules. And sometimes we’re prepared to bend those rules slightly to get a little bit more. Greed is not something that is alien to us; it is how capitalism functions.

But the fact is that we expect more from our politicians than we expect from ourselves. We expect them to set an example to the rest of us. And that’s understandable. If we accepted that they were all human beings, with the same weaknesses and flaws as the rest of us, then we’d probably feel sorry for them. And then democracy wouldn’t work.  We’d never vote anybody out. So perhaps our hypocrisy is essential to our democracy. Or perhaps I just like the rhyme.

* * *
Speaking of allowances, the details of our councillors’ expenditure, which has just been released, is considerably less juicy than that of our MPs. The only figure that really stands out for me is Florence Grains’ £12,693 claim for “fares and other authorised payments” – i.e. taxis from Whiteness to Lerwick and back – which never seems to lose its shock value, despite recurring year after year.

I am convinced that councillor Grains could employ a part-time chauffeur for considerably less than that amount. In fact, I would happily drive her to Lerwick and back for a lot less than £12,000. But perhaps chauffeurs would not be considered a valid expense, whereas taxis are. If so, that rule should be changed, and I hereby volunteer myself for the job.

* * *
According to The Shetland Times, the SIC’s outgoing chief executive, Morgan Goodlad, is concerned about his “legacy”. He fears that “the man in the street” will remember him not for his successes but for his big mistake (the one for which the ombudsman rapped him on the knuckles). It is a legitimate fear, and will no doubt prove correct.

It is not so very long since Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed almost identical fears on the eve of his departure from the job. And I recall that my lack of sympathy was almost identical too.

Perhaps those in power ought to worry a little more about their legacy before they make their big mistakes, rather than waiting until they are about to leave office. Perhaps then they might even avoid making those mistakes in the first place.

Malachy Tallack


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