Moats and Manses, Knights and Knaves, and Fools


I hope this will be my last blog on ‘Expenses-Gate’ but I somehow doubt it – this one ‘has legs’ as the media says.

(For those of you outside the UK some of this must seem positively weird – the scale of the problem is, by any rational standards, relatively small).

So a few more random thoughts.

Moats – an example of the levels of hysteria is the allegation that an MP (Douglas Hogg) claimed for cleaning his moat. The reality is far more complex – Hogg does indeed have a moat (enough in some eyes to warrant summary execution). He did indeed list the cost of cleaning it in a letter the Parliamentary Fees Office. But he did not explicitly claim for cleaning his moat, but instead agreed to claim a standard 1/12th of the total allowable amount – or, to put it another way, 1/12th of what David “Mr Clean” Cameron has been claiming. But in the current climate little things like facts are far less interesting than emblematic headlines about moats.

Knights and Knaves – just about any and all supposed transgression is now being lumped together. Everything from bath-plugs to claiming thousands of pounds for non-existent mortgages is being put on the same level.

In reality of course there are a small minority of real Knaves. The number of MPs who appear to have ‘accidentally’ claimed truly staggering amounts for entirely fake reasons is fairly small. On my guestimate the annual allowable ‘additional costs’ claims is probably about £16m, but the published allegations of really serious potential frauds cover only about 5% or so of this, if that.

There are however plenty of Fools – those MPs who treated the extra allowances as entitlements for which they only had to come up with some lame excuse, however frivolous, to claim. It is this group who have actually done the most damage their trivial claims provokes the greatest ire. But to be fair, it is just greed. It is not corruption in the sense of accepting payments to do what you otherwise would not. They just can’t resist the temptation – a bit like my 4-year-old as he spots the sweets at the supermarket check-out (god I love/hate supermarkets).

Foolish behaviour is also, paradoxically, the hardest to seriously pin-down. Claiming for dog food – clearly wrong, your dog has to get fed whatever and clearly has nothing to do with legitimate costs of working in two places at once.

Claiming to get an electrician in to deal with dodgy lighting – more tricky? After hearing the full story I think David ‘two brains’ Willetts ought to be congratulated for getting a ‘sparks’ out for a home visit so cheaply.

Knights – the reality is that whatever the ‘system’ and the enormous incentives to simply treat the extra £24K as a ‘perk’ many MPs have claimed modestly – so much for the “we all selfish maximisers” doctrine. Saying this at the moment is inviting a visit from the lynch-mob, but it is still true.

On the other hand, to be fair, Sir Fred Goodwin (the disgraced former head of the bank RBS) alone is probably getting more ill-gotten gains than all the Knavish and Foolish MPs put together. So the economists are at least partly right – their are certainly some ‘maximisers’ out there.

Some – most? – MPs probably have a bit of the Knight, the Knave and the Fool about them – haven’t we all? Overall our (UK) system of government – by global comparisons – is actually pretty incorrupt. The checks and balances work reasonably well.

The reasons for the current explosion are complex but there is clearly one over-riding factor – anger at the abuses that led to the financial collapse which is costing us all so dearly, and for which – apparently – so few have been brought to account. This anger needed an outlet, and like a stream of molten lava it has found a channel, but one which has little to do with what caused the upwelling in the first place.

So lastly – the Manse. Poor old Gordon Brown. One of his ‘USPs’ (unique selling points) was that unlike Blair he was a fine, upstanding, son of the Manse – a little dour, to be sure, but he’d put a stop to all the peripheral scandals of the Blair era (Formula 1; cash for honours; etc). So what irony that Gordon now faces the biggest ‘sleaze’ scandal in a century on his watch.

Paradoxically however it may have done Mr Brown some good, in a very narrow sense. Remember it was only 2 weeks ago some restive spirits within Labour and the media were speculating on his demise after the European elections.  No-one doubts Labour will suffer a dreadful drubbing – but now instead of City-gate; or Ghurkha-gate; or any of Brown’s many other failings the explanation for Labour’s electoral melt-down will be ‘Expenses-Gate’, something for which Mr Brown is not mainly responsible. I suspect he’s at least a tiny bit grateful to Blears, Morely and Co.

I final thought – which I have already mentioned but came out vey clearly in a seminar in Manchester on Thursday – all these calls for the PM to ‘sort out’ the mess are potentially disastrous. We already have a regime in the UK that is dangerously tilted in favour of executive power against a weak legislature. Are calls to strengthen the power of the executive to “sort out” Parliament really where we want to be going?

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
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