The MPs’ expenses ‘scandal’ of 2009 created an unprecedented moral panic about the shortcomings of our political representatives. However, while some MPs had clearly taken advantage of a flawed claims system, the public’s reaction owed its origins to a wider mistrust of how we are governed.
The lack of ‘trust’ in those we elect to represent us is a problem about which academics have been aware for some time. It is nonetheless one that most MPs and in particular Speaker Michael Martin were unwilling to confront. Indeed as Tony Saint’s BBC4 comedy-drama On Expenses accurately shows, Martin obstructed efforts to expose abuses.
Martin thought that the interests of MPs – and of Parliamentary democracy as a whole - were best served by keeping things in the dark. Of course, it was the attempted cover-up as much as the inflated claims of too many MPs that did for Martin and exposed all Parliamentarians – the guilty as well as the innocent – to public fury. The consequences have yet to be played out – the BNP, UKIP and Esther Rantzen all hope to do well at the forthcoming general election by exploiting the issue. While the actions of politicians are rightly seen as fostering the public’s lack of trust in representative politics another is the generally negative portrayal of MPs in television fiction, which helps predispose voters to thinking ill of those who inhabit the Westminster village. Alan B’Stard (the New Statesman), Francis Urquhart (The House of Cards) and Jim Hacker (Yes Minister) and their more recent successors all exemplify politics as the pursuit of power by men whose selfishness is only exceeded by their incompetence and lack of regard for those who elected them. It will be interesting to see how far Tony Saint’s dramatisation confirms this general pattern.
Professor Steven Fielding