Magazine article The American Conservative

Expense Account

Magazine article The American Conservative

Expense Account

Article excerpt

London's reform plan: copy Congress

MOST BRITONS have favorite moments from the Great Parliamentary Expenses Scandal of 2009. For some, it was discovering that one Member of Parliament had forwarded the cost of dredging a moat around his country house, or the spectacle of another MP putting in a claim for an ornamental duck house. For yet others, the pornographic films billed by the home secretary's husband took the biscuit.

Day after day, the Daily Telegraph published details of the abuse of parliamentary expenses that MP's, it became clear, had been sensible to keep hidden. Members of Gordon Brown's own cabinet refurbished second and even third homes at taxpayers' expense. Others billed nonexistent mortgage payments or claimed expenses as mundane as bath plugs and pet food.

Each revelation served to corifirm the public's suspicion that Britain was governed by charlatans. MP's protested that they were "within the rules," oblivious to the fact that the people were appalled by the rules themselves.

For me, two examples summed up the scandal. When the Conservative MP Stewart Jackson was revealed to have made a £300 claim for maintenance of his swimming pool, he responded, "The pool came with the house and I needed to know how to run it. Once I was shown that one time, there were no more claims. I take care of the pool myself. I believe this represents Value for money' for the taxpayer."

Then, confirming the parliamentarians' sense of entitlement, when a Labour MP's attempt to bill taxpayers for the cost of a cot for his infant was surprisingly in view of what was permitted - refused, he appealed: "I object to your decision not to reimburse me for the costs of purchasing a baby's cot for use in my London home. ... Perhaps you might write to me explaining where my son should sleep next time he visits me in London?"

The affair has ended dozens of careers, including that of Michael Martin, the first speaker of the House of Commons to be forced from office in 300 years. For a few days, it looked as though the prime minister himself would step down.

In the end, Brown survived. His party won just 15 percent of the vote in the recent European parliament elections, and if Labour were as ruthless in dealing with damaged leaders as the Tories have been, Brown would have been unceremoniously defenestrated. As it is, the wounded prime minister now limps, crippled, toward electoral disaster next year.

Brown's weakness - only the vacillation of senior cabinet ministers preserved his position - has exacerbated the sense that Something Must Be Done. While the public mood is so sour that a proposal to garrison parliamentarians in a prison ship moored on the Thames would win widespread support, the media has been just as quick to embrace any idea that would supposedly "transform" British politics.

Terrified by looming electoral catastrophe, the Left has rediscovered its enthusiasm for voting reform. The introduction of proportional representation, first considered during the long years of Tory ascendancy - but subsequently forgotten in the aftermath of Labour's landslide victory in 1997 - has been excavated and repainted as means by which British politics can be "renewed."

Brown has proposed a referendum on electoral reform, hoping that this will assuage public anger. Abandoning the first-past-the-post principle might benefit the Labour Party. But it would frustrate the accountability its enthusiasts claim to support. Whatever its other merits, proportional representation would increase the power of political parties at the expense of the electorate, making the formation of a government subject to backroom deals in the aftermath of elections, which would do little more than set the parameters for negotiations.

Voting reform will likely be stillborn, so pundits are looking to the U.S. for answers. If only, they suggest, British politics were more like the American system, this would be a better governed country. …

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