Against the grain of public outrage over some of the expenses claims of MPs, the Times on Saturday carried an editorial - 'Making Allowances' - suggesting that feelings about this are perhaps overblown. The editorial contains some dubious judgements. It says, for example, that the imbroglio 'threaten[s] the legitimacy of Parliament'. Isn't that itself rather overblown? Parliament can easily put this matter away, by reforming the expenses system and then running it properly. The Times says, also, that 'becoming a British MP in order to get rich is a scheme that only an idiot would devise'. But one doesn't have to think being an MP is a path to fabulous wealth in order to reckon that elected democratic representatives should not be fiddling public money to which they aren't entitled.
The most wayward judgement of all, however, comes in the Times's charge of piety and hypocrisy against the widespread objection to the practices lately revealed. Everybody, the paper's leader claims, either does the same as the various delinquent MPs, or they would do given the opportunity. Well, it may be to the point to remind people that Members of Parliament, and political representatives more generally, are made of the same human stuff as the rest of us. Still, in trying to promote a healthy public culture, it is better to hold up a standard of honesty and expect public servants to meet that standard than it is to utter a weary sigh to the effect that this is just human nature. For though it is, in a way, human nature, it also isn't. Any rules there are from which people can gain illegitimate advantage some will duly bend or break when they can get away with it. But some also won't, and we do well to demand of those we elect that they are among these latter, or at least will behave as if they are while holding public office. Furthermore, the argument that many would do the same if given the opportunity, and therefore condemnation is hypocritical, is a bad one. It's not only that many also don't do the same; it's that no one who hasn't in fact done the same is forbidden from adverting to some given moral standard as relevant to the behaviour of others. Or else you could never hold anyone to account for anything unless you'd previously been 'tested' yourself and passed that test.
As the Observer yesterday observed:
The impression created is that MPs treat the £24,006 second home allowance and the £22,193 "incidental expenses allowance" as part of their wages. For that reason they were slow to understand why the public took so much interest in how the money was spent.
In a sense, the obtuseness is worse than the fiddling itself. It suggests an utterly cavalier attitude to sums that mean a lot to most people. A £46,199 expenses windfall is equivalent to nearly double the annual income for the average British household.
That is as pertinent a yardstick as the one alluded to by the Times - that of getting rich. By the way, check out how many times you can find 'wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the purpose of performing your Parliamentary duties', or similar, in this official guide [pdf] to parliamentary allowances.