On pigs and servants

By , 22 May 2009 6:00 pm

In last week’s blog I was lamenting the fact that I had had my geology classes halved in number and doubled in size. In the intervening week I have to say there has been very little apparent progress in college but I have had three very able first-year students say they want to switch to geology next year so I live in hope that public pressure will force something of a climb down.

One factor that may have an effect is the imminent European elections. How so? Well it is generally expected that the ruling Labour Party will be massively damaged in these elections and be forced to throw out some sops to ordinary people (as opposed to bankers and the like) to avoid being cast into the outer darkness in the General Election that must occur within the next twelve months. So the hope is that they will find some money from somewhere and rescue education. Well, we live in hope!

Matters have been made much more intense by the spectacular series of revelations about MPs’ expenses. For those outside the United Kingdom let me remind you that the House of Commons, which is effectively the country’s governing body, is composed of some 646 members of parliament elected by constituencies. MPs get paid a decent salary (by most people’s standard) and a very generous pension (by almost anybody’s standard). It had always been taken for granted that they were entitled to expenses, often centred around having a property in London; after all an MP from South Wales can hardly be expected to catch the train up and back everyday. These expenses figures were secret but have been leaked over the last fortnight in the right-wing newspaper The Daily Telegraph. They have revealed a range of things:

  • Many MPs have been pushing the expense system to the absolute limit: so for instance we find that entire homes and flats have been furnished at the public’s expense. Some of the claims have been either outrageous or banal: glittery toilet seats, jellied eels, moat cleaning, a floating ‘duck island’ for a pond, hair straighteners. While much of this is legal, it is either dubious or petty.
  • A number of MPs have been exposed as creatively manipulating the system to make quite a tidy little profit. One ‘nice little earner’ has been what is now called flipping; a technique whereby a Member of Parliament switches his or her second home between several houses, which has the effect of allowing the maximisation of taxpayer-funded allowances. Other tricks have been buying rundown property, getting the State to refurbish it and then selling it at a personal profit before buying another one and so on.
  • Some MPs have clearly been engaged in fraud and are being interviewed by the police and the tax office.

As the quip goes: ‘we were prepared for swine flu; we were unprepared for a plague of pigs.’

In the resulting flurry of righteousness, recrimination and resignations, MPs have been quick to come up with excuses. These include such things as ‘accounting clearly isn’t my strong suit’, ‘I seem to have made a mistake’, ‘ I apologise for my unforgivable oversight’ and so on. The public have shown an astonishing appetite for these revelations, and still the scandal rolls on. The prurient desire to look into lives of those who rule us is almost universal and this scandal has allowed it with a vengeance. The fact that we are in a massive economic downturn has also exacerbated matters; had the country been booming I think we would have been much more forgiving.

Anyway the point of this blog is not to say what everybody else is saying but to say something else. The most obvious Christian comment is that given that modern British society has become separated from any creed or ethical basis this sort of thing is hardly surprising. I have no doubt that such scams were present in the past: but were they ever so endemic and were they ever quite so wide ranging? In some cultures – those of you who know my background will guess where I am referring to – it is expected that the politicians are corrupt and will defraud the nation. We had hoped otherwise here.

A more subtle point is that it is now evident we have lost the servant ethos that goes with Christianity. MPs are ‘elected to serve’ a particular constituency. Not, you note, to rule. With the death of the servant ethos what has emerged is an astonishing arrogance; a wilful belief that as a Member of Parliament you have a right to plunder the system. Now, one of the most striking features of the Christian faith is its outrageous and irrational celebration of service. There seems little question even in the eyes of those who are sceptical about the authenticity of much in the gospels that this goes back to Jesus of Nazareth. (See for example Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”) Sadly, in the present scandal we are beginning to have sketched out what politics looks like when men and women rule rather than serve. We do not like what we see.

2 Responses to “On pigs and servants”

  1. daniel says:

    Very interesting and timely thoughts. Sad that the Westminster-system title “minister” (lit. servant) doesn’t live up to its name in so many cases.
    Also, you wrote: “So the hope is that they will find some money from somewhere and rescue education.” With warnings emerging this week that the U.K. risks having its credit rating downgraded, where do you see the money coming from?

  2. Chris says:

    Good point about the money! However in my experience money can be found in the run up to an election. And the sums are minimal compared to what has been spent on rescuing banks!

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