Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MP's Expenses - The Mini-Milgram

I note that my post on Pretty Polly and Grisly Gordon has inspired comments on the Great Swimming Pool, Manure, Moat, Chandelier, Light Bulb and Flip Scandal. This draws my attention to my own dilatoriness in failing to comment further on the matter. I have been held back by the fact that, whenever it comes on the TV or radio, I stick my fingers in my ears and sing 'La-la-La' at the top of my voice. I can't even look at the papers. But, insofar as it has penetrated my do-it-yourself sensory deprivation chamber, I am prepared to say the following.
I was ticked off by a Sunday Times reader recently for casually observing that humans are 'lecherous, tribal carnivores'. 'Not like that down here in Surrey,' he said or some such. Then, last night, I watched Horizon. They did a rerun of the Milgram Experiment. Michael Portillo watched in horror as, yes indeed, perfectly ordinary, run-of-the-mill humans tortured and killed people at the behest of a plausible man in a white coat. Oh and then I noted they are hard at it in Swat, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe etc, etc.. They're at it in Surrey also but they avoid visible marks.
People, given the opportunity and encouragement, do bad things. What is clear about the GSPMMCLBFS is that the rules were disobeyed not just by the MPs but, more importantly, by the people accepting their claims. These people are, in fact, the real guilty parties. They created a little Milgram - look, it's all right to do this, everybody's at it, it helps with the smooth running of the place etc etc.. In that climate, of course people claimed what they could. This is because - read this slowly and repeat - they are human beings.
Now Chris Dillow points out that MPs are, in fact, very well paid. This is true. But it ignores another demonic element in Westminster's Mini-Milgram. MPs spend their lives with businessmen, various media types, potentates, whatever, all of whom earn much more than they do. They do a job in which they might have to be sneered at on Newsnight by £1m-a-year Paxo. This further softens them up by giving them a sense that doing bad things is a form of justice.
Finally, since the mid nineties when New Labour seduced the press corps, Westminster has looked only at itself. Spin and gossip have been its primary preoccupations. In this context, the Damian Macbride scandal was much worse than this one - it represented the climax of a dismal and corrupt phase of British politics - but that now seems to be forgotten. Politics, in this period, was professionalised in that politicians tended to be people who had done nothing else. In fact, I note that, when I take my fingers from my ears, people keep talking about the profession of being an MP. It is not a profession, it is a vocation, or should be. It is a vocation that should be pursued in the midst of or in between other things. MPs should be amateurs. Professionalisation and the formation of an inward looking, club-like group is a further element in this Mini-Milgram. Seeing themselves as people making a living out of politics and as members of a self-important, self-defining little group, MPs took their expenses as no more than their right. And, once again, everyone was at it.
Now amiably mediocre MPs who just followed the herd are being asked to pay back quite large sums of money. They are pathetic creatures, made more pathetic by the fact that they'll have trouble raising a loan thanks to Grisly's inept handling of the economy these last twelve years. Best to put my fingers in my ears - 'La-la-la, can't hear you.'


  1. Normally I'd wholeheartedly agree with all that - fingers in ears and lalala-ing through the news being the first rule of maintaining a tolerable equanimity - but this one is rather good fun. The details are tremendously entertaining.

  2. True enough. Gyles Brandreth once said that the best tip he got as an MP was to carry a spare set of raffle tickets in his suit, because he had to attend so many community events that raffles become rather expensive. I'd hate to work hard all day scrutinsing legislation and be sneered at by Paxman (as indeed I felt for Phil Woolas who was trying to deal quite rationally with the fragrant Lumley).

    How many people have been to an MPs surgery? I went last year for the first time and was the sixth one there (there weren't many after me). All the rest were immigrants asking for their asylum applications to be looked at. Strange life being an MP. Paxman treating you like a lying git, Zimbabweans and Sudanese putting all their faith in you. The rest of the Brits seem to have opted out - maybe that's also part of the problem.

    There's a very unpleasant stench coming out of Westminster, which Guido, for all his faults, has been capturing very well. We need more of a Cromwellian sensibility - Bullingdon Dave Cameron, for all his current posturing, doesn't quite cut it for me. Hope I'm wrong.

  3. MPs are, in fact, very well paid. This is true. But it ignores another demonic element in Westminster's Mini-Milgram. MPs spend their lives with businessmen, various media types, potentates, whatever, all of whom earn much more than they do. They do a job in which they might have to be sneered at on Newsnight by £1m-a-year Paxo. This further softens them up by giving them a sense that doing bad things is a form of justice.

    The point about hobnobbing with those who earn much more is key and one reason for my putative £200k per annum in a previous post. I don't get your 'doing bad things' though Bryan. Whatever that meant, envy's a bad driver for an MP just like any of us but we're foolish to ignore economic incentives and their impact of our current corporatist/lobbyist state on the poor drones in the centre. The answer may be spiritual revival. In fact yes, the answer is revival as la John Wesley in 18th century, touching many voters as well as the elites that so infuriate them. Another Thatcher Methodist connection. Still, I wouldn't object to a generous increase in MP salary combined of course with a total clampdown on expense fiddling. Backing out of corporatism itself is a much longer project and depends on much better, better motivated MPs.

  4. Interesting point about the Methodists Richard. Not too long ago, I heard a very good interview with Ian Paisley on Night Waves who said an era of spiritual renewal was on the cards. Despite much about our current feckless, godless condition, if the austerity really kicks in community based organisations (which the Methodists are good at)will be well placed.

    A cradle Catholic, I quite admire the sensible and usually quite cheerful Methodists. More power to them!

  5. Sensible and subtle diagnosis. Do you happen to have a cure?

  6. if this is professionalism I dread to think what amateurs could do.
    No, I don't mind them being bad, it's being stupid that I take objection to.

  7. Methodism of course, in the form of the Tolpuddle six, is also a seminal influence on old Labour - very old Labour. Sensible and cheerful are very good words for what we should all be, rationally, given how much we have compared to almost all of humanity at almost all times in history, including that one. Bryan's cool in saying that he has no answer. Quite honestly I don't know that I have. But such issues throw us back to what really matters. We need a spiritual revolution. We have so much to lose otherwise - and by that I'm not talking of material things at all.

  8. I have the answer!

    People should pay to vote, £25 quid, and it goes direct to the party you vote for, and they will pay their own MPs and expences.

    Cash only on the day.

  9. My fingers are in my ears, too, Brian. Bored with it already; let the man they appointed write his report and get on with the job - elections on June 4th coming up-or pack it all in and ask Buckingham Palace or St James if they want it all back. There's something Shakesperean about all this - Much Ado About Nothing or the Merchants of W1, "the quality of MP is not strained, as itemised in the DT..." Or a Comedy Of Expenses.

  10. Corruption, whether petty or serious, is the product of secrecy. Had MP"s expense claims been entered into a public database, accessible to anyone, no-one would have dared make the kind of claims that have been revealed in the press.

  11. Disclosure is everything at the moment. I hope it doesn't distract us from more important things.

    I've found an instructive example of how disclosure is sometimes really beside the point here.

  12. The Milgrim Experiment is key to understanding ourselves, but so is another social psych bias: we tend to overestimate the importance of whatever we're focused on.

    When we're asked to estimate how much happier we'd be living in Los Angeles, given how much nicer their weather is than ours, we just focus on the weather difference and assume that if the weather's twice as nice, we'll be twice as happy. In fact, people actually living in Los Angeles are just as miserable as the rest of us.

    In other words, none of this matters as much as we think.

  13. Dear Lothian & Borders chief constable,
    In the process of eating my porridge this morning I have discovered that over the past ten years I have inadvertently transferred £400,000 of my clients money into my own account. The client, an eighty year widow has subsequently died of grief. This is purely an oversight on my part, as a busy solicitor minor details like this are sometimes overlooked.
    You of course will appreciate that a man in my position would not want his reputation impaired and I have written out a cheque for the full amount (DVD enclosed of myself brandishing the said cheque in front of the camera)

    I am assuming that you, as a custodian of the law, will fully appreciate my point of view and exonerate me.

    Kind regards
    the usual hookey solicitor.

  14. Frankly, let's start paying local councillors for their public service, and thereby also ensure that they are not- like their Westminster counterparts- abusing the system. I know many local councillors who are active in local politics, putting many hours into local affairs and who also get paid for supposedly working full-time in Third Sector organisations, creating not only conflicts of interests between their different roles but also forcing the Third Sector to subsidize their public/political roles: one well-known example is Labour Councillor Antonia Bance working with Oxfam's UK poverty programme. The whole system needs over-hauling!

  15. I was half hoping that Hazel (the manic squirrel) Blears would point blank refuse to pay back her ill gotten gains. I was also hoping (and this is a much bigger stretch) that Gordon Brown would have a "brief attack of courage".Then, it might just have been possible that Blears would have a funny turn and go for Gordon s nuts!

  16. just one big comedy sketch no wonder things like this have appeared

  17. just one big comedy sketch no wonder things like this have appeared

  18. Support of the Lou Zhu, Lou Zhu worked hard
    Nothing is impossible for a willing heart.
    ugg classic cardy

  19. Mr Brown

    had two reciepts for the same job someone must have created the duplication on another piece of paper, in civi street this would be call fruad and a court would not let any other commoner to apologise and repay the amount? so why is he above and beyond the law of the land, not one mp could be honest and tell us that