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Scandal in the British Parliament

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

LONDON -- Drip, drip, drip: The neverending stream of revelations has been compared by one British member of Parliament to "torture" -- waterboarding? -- and rightly so. One day, it emerges that a senior MP has charged British taxpayers £2,000 (about $3,200 as of yesterday) for the cleaning of the moat on his 13th-century estate. A few days later, another MP is revealed to have charged 1,645 pounds for a floating duck house. Almost every day for the past two weeks, in fact, the British press has published accounts of the ginger crinkle cookies, stainless steel dog bowls, swimming pool heaters, spousal iPhones and the trouser press (119 pounds) that British legislators charged to the British government.

Which isn't bad compared with the MP who submitted a claim for interest payments on a mortgage he had already repaid, or those who kept swapping properties in order to avoid taxes. Outrage is genuine. The Daily Telegraph -- the newspaper that obtained the expense receipts (and isn't saying how; most assume the paper bought them) is calling for early elections. So is just about everybody else, except, naturally, the ruling Labor Party.

There is a degree of unfairness about this scandal. With the exception of a handful of real cheaters and tax-dodgers, most politicians were operating within a legal system. According to parliamentary rules, they were allowed to claim for the expenses of maintaining a second home, either in London or in their districts. But only a degree: After all, the reimbursement system was set up and run by the politicians themselves, under the aegis of soon-to-be-retired, yet apparently unrepentant Michael Martin, the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced out of office since 1695.

Besides, while some MPs charged for the leaky pipes under their tennis courts, others kept their expenses to a bare minimum. And in that fact lies an interesting psychological question: Why did members of the world's oldest legislative body feel they were entitled to ask the taxpayers to pay for their scatter cushions and their swimming pool maintenance? Though some retained a sense of propriety, most did not. Why not? The explanation seems to me to lie in the declining prestige of the House of Commons and the rise of the outsize-bonus culture in the London financial district down the road.

Both have their origins in the 1980s, when a combination of Thatcherite reforms, the adoption of English as the universal business language, and geography -- Britain is in a time zone about halfway between New York and Tokyo -- made London the financial capital of Europe. Throughout the decade, everyone in Parliament watched their friends from college get not just rich but very, very rich, while their own salaries remained stagnant. As a result, British MPs came down with a bad case of what columnist David Brooks has called "Status- Income Disequilibrium," a disease whose sufferers hold badly paying but prestigious jobs, positions that require them to "lunch on an expense account at The Palm, but dine at home on macaroni" -- (or, in British terms, "go home every night to beans on toast").

The problem worsened as the importance of Parliament declined. With the rise of 24-hour television, the importance of substantive debate declined, too. MPs were not only relatively poor but also relatively insignificant. They earned less, and they mattered less, not merely less than bankers but less than journalists and less than their political predecessors. This parliamentary crisis of confidence seemed to climax in the "cash-for-questions" scandal in 1994, when a few conservative MPs were shown to have taken money -- in cash, in brown paper bags -- from businessmen who wanted them to make official inquiries on their behalf.

Back then, a solution seemed imminent: Crusading against parliamentary "sleaze," Tony Blair's Labor Party cruised to victory in 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative rule. This time after 12 years of Labor rule, there are no white knights. All three major British political parties -- Conservative, Labor, Liberal Democrat -- have been damaged by the expenses scandal, which is unfolding just as Britain enters a deep recession (itself partly the result of the outsize bonus culture). As a result, the next elections may well bring to into office a gaggle of political independents or representatives of the xenophobic British National Party.

Or they may simply reveal new depths of voter apathy. If the declining prestige of Parliament is a part of the source of this scandal, a far more dramatic decline in the prestige of Parliament will be the result. That feeling, so palpable in London -- and in New York, and in Washington -- that "I'm clever, I work hard, so I deserve to be richer, even at someone else's expense" helped bring down Lehman Brothers, helped create the Madoff pyramid and has now damaged the ancient House of Commons. Which venerable institution is going to fall next?

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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