At the root of the expenses scandal is a sense of entitlement and the fact that many of us have to be made to be virtuous, says Clive James.
We were never supposed to know about what the MPs were claiming on expenses. If somebody hadn't pushed for disclosure under the Freedom of Information act, the whole thing would have stayed nicely buttoned up.
But then one thing led to another and all the data got onto the kind of secret disc designed to be left in a taxi but this time somebody tried to sell it to a newspaper and only sold half of it but then he sold the rest of it and so on until you don't want to know how it happened, all you know is that it's happening, and filling the news with great waves of hoo-hah by which you are meant to be stunned but somehow aren't.
I speak for myself here, but I am reminded of the immortal words of Gertrude Stein when she said "It is remarkable how I am not interested". And all I can say, as I sit here going through my own expenses - replacement of ball point pen, 50p -- is that when I find out that the richest man in the cabinet, the one who's already got seven properties, has done better than all his colleagues out of juggling his first and second residence is, if that's a revelation, with what revelation will you be astounding me next? That Jordan and Peter Andre are splitting up?
Please. Try to contain your excitement as I just annotate these receipts for expenses relating to my forthcoming book, called Take it Easy, on the importance of relaxation to the working writer. Research trip to Acapulco including first class flights and ten days at Hotel Las Brizas, £20,000. Massage by muscle de-tensioning operative Fifi La Bonza PhD, £8.39. Lip balm, £2.50.
The Daily Telegraph spilled the stories about the Labour MPs first. With the conspicuous exceptions of three MPs who didn't claim all they could - a peculiar characteristic which we'll get to later - most of them seem to have been working the system in the direction of the limits allowed.
Some of them went near the edge of that and might lose their jobs for it, but at worst they were shuffling the first and second residence system in order to maximise what they could claim.
Even the most active of the Labour MPs seemed pretty unambitious when it became the turn of the Tory MPs to have their stories spilled.
Your typical Labour expenses claimer claims the expense on an extra radiator to heat his bedroom. Your typical Tory expenses claimer claims the expense on extra pipes to heat his swimming pool.
In the bad old days, MPs from out of town crashed in a cheap hotel or festered in bedsits - only an unreconstructed Maoist radical would say that they should go back to that
It's a different level of expectation. At either level, upmarket or downmarket, the tacit claim, the one that doesn't get written down, is - I need these things to live.
Another way of putting it is a sense of entitlement. With the Tories it's ingrained. These comforts are what used to be delivered automatically if you were a member of the aristocracy.
With the Labour MPs it's aspirational. These comforts are what one ought to have if one is a member of the meritocracy. But either way, the deep down assumption is that a certain standard of living should go with the job.
Well, there's something to it. And I write this as I sit vibrating at my desk while the brick walls of my office are replaced with Portland stone so that I can get this place reclassified as a listed building and have the loft insulated by the National Trust.
Though it's sometimes easy for the media to forget it, most MPs really do need two places to live, one in the constituency and the other in the capital city, and it's only simple justice that the London residence should be reasonably civilised.
In the bad old days, MPs from out of town crashed in a cheap hotel or festered in bedsits. Only an unreconstructed Maoist radical would say that they should go back to that. The belief that a politician must live like a student is one that only a student would hold.
The trouble is that the whole business of running two homes tends to be more expensive that the salary easily allows, so there is an imperative to make up the difference with claims, and the imperative to make up the difference easily turns into a temptation to make up more than the difference, especially when there is a sense of entitlement.
Some people have been accused of having a rather large sense of entitlement
Entitlement, like empowerment, is one of those words that can send you to sleep the moment it is uttered, and I myself have just had to plunge my face into a sink full of cold water in the bathroom which is currently being re-grouted by a plumber employed by my brother.
But although entitlement is a tedious word, a sense of entitlement is a useful phrase, because it sounds like a dangerous thing to have, and indeed it is.
The phrase cropped up almost as soon as the danger did, when executives in public service started expecting a large salary, with large perquisites to top it up, because, they claimed, that was what they would be worth on the free market. Claiming that, they started claiming everything, and the mood soon spread.
It spread fast, and spread far, not because most people are anti-social, but because they are too social. If everybody else is doing it, perhaps I should too.
At full stretch, the sense of entitlement means that almost everybody takes what they can get. On a low level of ambition, the result is what the Americans call the Serpico scenario, when the honest cop is shunned by the other cops because he won't take the free sandwich from the deli.
On a higher level of ambition we get newspaper proprietors who don't pay taxes here because they can get away with paying less somewhere else.
Some of the reporters currently pounding out stories about MPs avoiding thousands in tax are working for proprietors who avoid millions.
What we are all asked to be amazed at right now is that there is such a thing as human dishonesty, but really we should be amazed at how it has been kept within bounds
It's a continuing source of shame to journalists and one of the chief reasons for their bad diet. Lunch claim: Two meat pasties and one individual fruit pie, £5.50?
But it isn't corruption, it's just working the system. And the answer to it is to fix the system, by improving the regulations.
There is no mystery to this principle, and no heresy. Even if you believe that a free market is essential, you can't believe that a free market is sufficient and still be a politician. If you did believe that, you would be a warlord. Regulating the free market is what a government does.
In liberal democratic societies, where the free market is regulated by government, there is a limit to corruption.
What we are all asked to be amazed at right now is that there is such a thing as human dishonesty, but really we should be amazed at how it has been kept within bounds.
In countries where no bounds are set, and corruption reigns unchecked, hardly anyone can afford to be honest. Yet even then, some are. It's one of the great divisions in mankind, and one of the hardest to explain.
As it happens, I am privileged with the regular company of three honest women who are so socially responsible that they continue to sort the household rubbish into the colour coded wheelie bins even though, the last I heard, the economic crisis has resulted in the recycling system grinding to a halt somewhere on its way to China.
The full force of corruption is doing its dreadful work even among us - We, however, have the luxury of being able to call it crime, not politics
Just a second: replacement of wheelie bin with broken wheel, £15.70.
I don't think I have any special propensity towards larceny. Certainly if I have, it is overcome by fear, and I took great care early on, in my career as a freelance, to acquire an accountant whose whole aim in life is to make sure that the revenue service receives every penny of my taxes on time, with a urine specimen just in case they need it.
But I am still struck by how these honest women are prone to what I see as an unrealistic view of mankind.
They expect other people to be honest naturally, as they are, and as those MPs were who neglected to claim for everything they could.
It is often the way with the saintly, however, that they have a restricted insight into the cupidity of the rest of us. Most of us, alas, have to be made virtuous.
It follows that the most successful system of government frames its laws on the principle that whatever is not nailed down will soon walk.
At the moment the world's most conspicuous and disheartening example is sub-Saharan Africa, where too many government officials export the economies of their countries to European banks because they think everyone else would if they could.
But the terrible truth is that the full force of corruption is doing its dreadful work even among us. We, however, have the luxury of being able to call it crime, not politics.
There is always a romantic dream of a version of theft that is not theft. But it doesn't exist.
The reality of the Mafia, for example, is that it built its international bank by stealing from the poor in Sicily. From the poor, not from the rich.
The apparent scam of MP expenses looks bad, but the fact that it looks bad is the very thing that makes it not so bad. The outrage that we are encouraged to feel means that we live in a country where corruption is not the norm.
If it were, some people on the front benches would be laughing at us right now, instead of sweating.
Below is a selection of your comments.
The thing that annoys me is that MPs are still not being honest. Why don't they just admit that it has long been acceptable and part of the culture at Westminster for them to charge unnecessary expenditures to their Commons expenses? You may not like that - and some have abused that system more than others - but that's the way it's been for years.
Let's stop this relentless media blood bath and the demand for repayments: where does it end? Should they repay the gardening costs? Alcohol? Chocolate bars?
They should largely draw a line under past misconduct where no fraud has been committed and change the rules so the State owns flats and houses in London that they furnish, pay utilities for and effectively lease to sitting MPs. Additional Parliamentary costs, e.g. travel, should be claimed on as usual, and they should buy their own food!
Andrew Tipp, Ipswich
As a serviceman I have spent most of my working life away from home. I get a sparsely-furnished room (en-suite if I'm really lucky) and allowances to cover the petrol for two return trips home a month. Now I agree it's my choice to do this; I could of moved my family every two years; but, I wanted my family to have roots and a settled education. The MPs also made a choice; to become MPs. My eldest daughter, who is a civil servant, is about to take up a new job which involves a move to London; her take home pay is less than an MP's second home allowance. It is because our MPs, and many of the media, are so far out of touch with reality that they seem to have difficulty understanding the public's anger over this issue.
You're wrong: the outrage is because that's OUR money that MPs are spending on themselves. I don't mind paying taxes so that the government can provide the services citizens cannot provide for themselves, but I don't pay taxes so that someone else can have a string of fancy houses or a new telly and not pay THEIR fair share of tax!
Megan, Cheshire UK
This article takes me back to a conversation that I had with my flatmate a few weeks ago. He has a job with a maximum expense limit. To this end, he claims the maximum rather than what he actually uses. He assures me that most people would do the same. It's a difficult one for me to comment on personally since my job does not allow for any perks or privileges of this type and maybe that's why I am of the view that the expense claims are ludicrous. Nobody is begrudging the MP a comfortable enough home and the running costs associated. The problem that the majority of people have is the level of privilege that the expenses are used to pay for, like John Lewis furniture and indoor swimming pools while the rest of us lowly citizens have to shop at Ikea and use the local communal pool.
The average salary in this country is £20,000. The average MP earns £64,000. If people can afford to live comfortably (ish) and bring up a family on £20,000 which is still higher than a great number of peoples' salaries, then why are the MPs struggling so much to maintain two homes for over three times as much?
I think it was a good idea to show what the elected officials spent tax payer money on. I hated seeing the Queen being audited and told she needed to sell her properties and jewels to continue in a life style that, yes it's out dated, but one she had been accustomed to for all her life. Now its the officials' time to show whether or not they have properly used tax-payers' money and told to give back some if not all the money they collected.
Amanda, San Francisco CA USA
What a great article. Expenses eh.. I remember trying to fiddle the train ticket claim for a second interview I went to after uni. I was found out... and I got the job. These days I am one of the saintly - sorting my recycling and doing the right thing. It feels a better place but a poor one.
Clive you miss the point. I expect greedy bankers to grub for money. I know that Tories in general are better off - and work the system. I have no illusions that leaders of industry make millions from shady deals. No. What is important here is the fact that Labour - and I single them out particularly - are supposed to represent the common working class man in Britain. A Labour MP is supposed to be better than a Tory because he stands for hard work and equality. This is their political stance and because they have always taken this to the voters, their money grabbing troughing is all the more dishonest. Who is the most trustworthy? A porn star running for election in the US with nothing to hide or a supposedly God fearing politician who behind closed doors behaves like a member of the Roman court and in public sells himself as a pure man? Labour have tried to sell themselves as pure but have behaved like closet whores. That is the distinction and why they in particular deserve the hounding that they are currently getting.
Mark Chisholm, Dereham, UK
As I listened to to Clive suggest that the pervasive practice of claiming the maximum allowable because they were "too social, my thoughts turned to Dave Nellist MP (ex). Was the real reason for his de-selection his failure to join the other MPs of all parties if "filling his boots"?
Mr Nellist was the holder of fairly extreme socialist views, and for all I know he still is. He was de-selected for as a Labour MP as a result. He was also extremely hair-shirted about his salary and expenses, only claiming as salary the average salary of his constituents and commuting to Parliament from his constituency claiming second class train fares.
Since there were other Labour MPs who held similarly socialist views, I wonder whether his real offence was his "anti-social" practice of only claiming the minimum necessary for him to carry out his duties.
Roger Hall, Canterbury, UK
Perhaps if our political leaders were as frank as this column, we might be more accepting. Problem is, they - almost without exception - assure us, the electorate, that they are honest. Competence is a secondary issue, so it seems. So when it transpires they're not honest, people are correspondingly furious.
Would a party leader ever stand up and say "Yes, our MPs are largely corrupt and unprincipled, but they're still better at their jobs than the other lot"? Might be interesting.
Chris, Cambridge, UK
It's not so much the severity or cost of this particular teacup storm that bothers me, as the fact that we were never meant to learn about it, and that while that was the case the system was roundly abused.
There are plenty of other things we are not allowed to know about, almost certainly covering up many more similar abuses of power. And while we have a system that allows one group of individuals to decide what's best for the rest of us, those abuses will continue, and the mechanisms put in place by those who benefit from them to obscure and obfuscate them will be strengthened while the 'rewards' for doing so remain.
A storm in a teacup it may be, but might it also represent an opportunity for us to at least spot the rot, further affording us a chance to work towards stopping it?
Just because we don't live in Zimbabwe doesn't mean we should aspire to less than optimum honesty and transparency in government; on the contrary we should improve it and in so doing lead the way for the people of nations who still have work to do in order to earn a similar level of 'freedom' as we enjoy now, and progress on to all we can aspire to.
Sean Gibbins, Lymington
If you look at the numbers, about 80% of eligible MPs claim over 80% of the maximum second home allowance of £23,083, it is the same for all three main parties. So, obviously it is the system that says to MPs, you are entitled to this money, so take it [and it doesn't matter (really) what justification you use]. MPs pay should be high enough to get competent people doing the job, £200k each with no expenses, staff paid separately, and no outside jobs, would be a small price to have the country run well. And a well run country wouldn't have systems that encourage corruption and tolerate crime - at all levels in society.
Jeremy Corney, Tavistock
Having managed to spill a bit from one expenses gravy train, is someone going to do the same for the European Parliament? This would be very topical, given the imminent elections to that body.
Dave, Cambridge, UK
Agreed - a sense of entitlement is what drives many to claim for things they don't need. It doesn't adequately explain why these allowance/expenses schemes exist in the first place.
As a school governor I'm regularly reminded of my entitlement to claim for travel, childcare or whatever else, and that this entitlement must be communicated to those who would otherwise no be able to volunteer. Personally I'm much more comfortable with the established tradition of not claiming. To claim would suggest that I don't value my time - which is given for free. Yet I do value it, and choose to serve my community.
Yes I accept that if it costs money to be a governor, councillor, etc. then poorer people are likely to be excluded. Very true - so let's address poverty, not entitlements!
They should live like the rest of us, that is the point, no special treatment, no second homes, stop telling us to go green and take public transport when they have a second home miles away, how can an MP look after a town if they don't live there? It is a complete crock. It is the two rules that irk people. If MPs stopped thinking they were better than us maybe things would change. Scrap MP allowances, find them reasonable hotels when in London and make them live like the rest of us!
Spot on. It's a media storm in a teacup.
There are millions of ordinary folk in Britain without a decent roof over their heads. Doing something about them - that is important. THAT should be news- not whether or not some rich/well-off MP has had a £345 lawnmower or not!
David Ewing, Paris, France
You are spot on Clive, the rot set in when senior people in the public sector convinced themselves and whoever sets their salaries that they were vastly underpaid compared with what they could demand in the private sector. Perhaps this should be put to the test. Advertise the services and CVs of these public sector high flyers at, say, 70% of their current remuneration packages (including pensions) and wait to see how many private sector companies beat a path to their doors in order to snap up this bargain-priced talent.
Ken, Merseyside UK
I own a consulting business in the UK. My staff are required to travel and we have a fairly flexible expenses reimbursement scheme. If I find that someone has been "playing the system" and claiming for items which are not expended wholly and necessarily in the conduct of their work, should I simply accept a mumbled apology that they were busy and had made a mistake? That is an excuse which can be used for say one item, but when this is endemic and persistent it is clear that they will have been milking the opportunities. That is not acceptable -- so can I trust them as an employee any longer in the conduct of their work .... unlikely. I would invite them to leave. Would repaying their "overclaims" be sufficient recompense? No, because they are only doing so as they have been found out. They have to go.
Recurring claims for bogus expenses cannot be excused by saying they were overlooked in the same way that a lack of knowledge of the law is not a defence. In these circumstances I would consider calling in the police as this is potentially fraud. Repaying sums taken dishonestly does not absolve the guilty. Why should MPs be treated any differently? In fact, as the creators of our laws they should be held to an even higher standard.
As I was once told by a successful businessman, "I know that my staff will have their hands in the till and I can put up with this as I can factor these costs into my pricing; but it is when they are in up to their elbows that I object."
Michael Green, London, UK
I like it, I like it, I like it. Yes, things are not black and white. And it is a matter of relativity. Where does moral bankruptcy start? Is it everyone else's responsibility or does it start with the individual? We need to recognise "chaos" theory and the butterfly effects that start chaos. Our feeling of entitlement also breeds the thoughts ... if it's okay for someone to play the system, then it's okay for us too. A line needs to be drawn somewhere - a line that says "standard bearer"
"The outrage that we are encouraged to feel" may be great fun, in the same way as a Witch-hunt is fun, but I feel that it says more about the hunters than the hunted. Can anyone who claims expenses say that every one of his claims for the last year has been fully justified? Even with the best of intentions, errors will be made. And with our unwillingness to pay MPs properly, it is surely unsurprising that they endeavour to claim all the expenses that they can, maximising their income. Thank you, Clive James, for pointing out our behaviour. Perhaps the current public outrage says more about our wish to justify our own actions as it does politician's venality
Michael Wright, Monewden, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK