I remember 1997. I know what it was like to live under the last Conservative government. I recall when “Tory” and “sleaze” were synonymous. I recollect with disgust the antics of Neil and Christine Hamilton, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick and “Cash for Questions”. I also remember Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer perjuring themselves and going to prison.
I remember 1997. I remember the arrival of the New Labour government. I recall Tony Blair’s promises of a fresh start: “Things Can Only Get Better” playing in the background and Blair asking, “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” Then there was Bernie Ecclestone and the Formula One exemption from the ban on tobacco advertising. There was “Cash for Honours”, and questions from the police. There were loans to Peter Mandelson on terms that were all too favourable to be considered kosher.
Corruption is nothing new. Read history: a Whitehall fixer named Maundy Gregory sold peerages on behalf of Lloyd George from 1918 onwards. There has been a bad odour lingering over politicians for some time, a result of the rot of immorality; it’s also a stench arising from a decayed and decrepit establishment. Cameron supposedly had learned from all this, and suggested that his Conservative Party was no longer the “nasty” party. And here we are: Peter Cruddas, £250,000 gets you “into the Premier League” and apparently policy can be directly influenced.
Perhaps what’s worse than the corruption itself is what it signifies: there is a class of politicians who live a life quite detached from that of their constituents. Does David Cameron know what it’s like to go shopping at Aldi? Has he ever wondered if Rossini beer is a good accompaniment to a takeaway curry? Has Ed Miliband tried to secure a rental flat in Barnsley while living on the minimum wage? Does he look at Gumtree to find furniture? Does George Osborne know what it’s like to claim benefits…in Hull? These “Right Honourable” gentlemen live a life that is smoothed by a certain knowledge: it’s highly unlikely that anything truly bad will ever happen to them. William Hague won’t get too deep in hock to Wonga.com, Harriet Harman won’t struggle to pay her electricity bill, Michael Gove will regard the rise in fuel prices as a mere blip on his radar. If they’re deprived of office, it doesn’t matter: directorships, lucrative positions with think tanks and lecturing tours await. Theirs is an existence which will feature custom-made suits and polished black limousines with cream leather interiors to the end of their days. If they make mistakes, well, that’s too bad: but infamy isn’t something they feel on their skin. Hubris is a way of life and we’re definitely not all in this together.
Modesty is a possible antidote. There are few instances of this in modern politics, but one in particular stands out: Dave Nellist, a former Labour MP and now Socialist councillor in Coventry, refused to take a wage that exceeded that of the average skilled worker in his constituency. No doubt, given the peripatetic nature of being a Member of Parliament, this proved to be costly at times. Nevertheless, he retained a basic link to those he represented: he had to make ends meet with a salary that didn’t make the task easy. It was information that helped him draw conclusions about what policies he should favour. While I disagree with many of Mr. Nellist’s proposals, at least he set a good example. We need a political class that follows suit: I suggest that every MP and minister should be paid the average salary of a skilled worker in the poorest city in Britain.
Location is also important. My father once said to me that he thought the President of the United States should be forced to leave Washington and settle in Minot, North Dakota.
“Why?” I asked.
“There’s nothing there,” he replied. He had been there once, apparently.
My father then identified an additional benefit: at least the President would live among real constituents rather than a coddled and champagne swilling Washington elite. A North Dakota based Presidency would also be less insulated from rural poverty, the effect of food prices on people’s livelihood, and the implications of directives from on high. This stands in stark contrast to the present scenario: there is one world “inside the Beltway” as Washington insiders would say, and a very different one outside it.
Similarly, the Westminster elite presently have access to the glittering attractions of the capital, from West End shows to high class restaurants. It is possible to lead a life there that entirely bypasses squalor; it proceeds down a golden corridor stretching from Whitehall through Belgravia to brick terraces of Chelsea. They can turn a blind eye very easily, as there is nothing to see.
I suggest my father’s proposal be adapted for British circumstances, namely, the Prime Minister of the day and Members of Parliament should live in the poorest city in the country. Their housing should reflect the relative affluence or lack thereof of their location. Their assets and income should be placed in a blind trust, which will only be returned upon completion of service.
I imagine that the enforced modesty of income and circumstances would raise a howl of agony from many Members of Parliament. No doubt they feel that their present rewards are a just return on their commitment to public service. However, public service should resemble Holy Orders in one respect: it should be a vocation, something one does for one’s community in exchange for the privilege of living in a free country. Furthermore, the imposition of stringent conditions of service might mean that there would be more turnover: without money and all the accoutrements of office, politics is less of a career option. Finally, and most important of all, it restores the link between the government and the governed. Samantha Cameron might have to pick up something for the weekend at a Middlesborough Lidl. The members of Parliament might have to contend with the decay of decrepit town halls. Perhaps proceeding to and from legislative sessions they’d finally see homelessness, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, despair and actually do something about it. After all, it’s one thing to endorse policies from afar that drop an economic bomb on a community that’s far away: it’s quite another to do it to people with whom you interact on a daily basis. Furthermore, the addition of the accessories of politics, i.e., journalists, broadcasters, television production companies, would provide an economic stimulus to communities which need it most.
I know that these proposals will never reach fruition, though it’s amusing to imagine the likes of Zac Goldsmith trying to pick out a flat in St. Helens: the best option on the table at the moment is the Liberal Democrat proposal for campaign finance reform. Changing how parties are funded is both beneficial and worthwhile: but even if a comprehensive programme of reform were enacted, it would not be the end of the story. The gap will remain, and given the history of Conservative scandal, there is every chance it will widen in the coming years. This is supposed to be a democracy, namely, we are supposed to govern ourselves: but the government is not us. Until we have a proposal for modesty, the fundamental inequity of this situation will remain as entrenched as ever.