It has been a decade now since British politics experienced the first of its two great recent earthquakes. The expenses scandal of 2009 was one of the most devastating and undermining stories to hit this generation of politicians.
Day after day, 10 years ago, The Telegraph brilliantly drip-fed astonishing revelation after astonishing revelation on to its front pages. These stories, drawn from a disc it had purchased from an anonymous source, told of how our elected representatives were greedily rewarding themselves to make up for salaries they evidently viewed as being too low.
Such large news events often have a contradictory afterlife. On the one hand, they seem game-changing. But on the other, once the story has died down, it feels as though it had never happened. In fact, this story may have slipped from the front pages but it sunk down to form part of the deep sediment of the whole flow of politics. The effects of that scandal are one of the underlying causes of the current political crisis engulfing the UK.
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One very clear memory I have of the whole affair is when I bumped into an MP in Parliament Square one morning. Another slew of MPs had just been felled by the day’s revelations, and I was returning from the BBC’s Westminster studios. These were good days for journalists. Not simply for those directly involved in the leak and dissemination of the story, but for anybody reckoned to be in the opinion business. Back then, if an MP caught sight of a comment journalist, they would dart over and desperately try to accumulate some small residue of sympathy in anticipation of the Telegraph’s tumbrils.
The MP I bumped into asked what I thought the effects of the revelations would be. I batted the question back to him. “I think we will see the increasing Lib Dem-isation of our politicians,” this non-Lib Dem politician said to me. It was a slightly curious phrase, and I asked for clarification.
The point this MP was making was not – as I had first confusedly thought – that somehow the scandal would cause a great boost for whatever ideological causes were that month being pushed by the Liberal Democrat Party.
Rather, the point was a social one. The Liberal Democrat party had, in recent years, comprised a group of distinctly indistinct individuals. Noticeable among their traits was how unnoticeable they were. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with any of them. Or many of them. But almost all of them gave off the aura of being unremarkable local council officials who had, to their only slight surprise, ended up in the House of Commons.
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This wasn’t the case with all of their MPs, any more than the other parties were filled solely with colourful, brilliant and experienced statesmen. But there was enough that was recognisable in the type. My MP interlocutor’s point was that, in the months and years ahead, it seemed likely that the sort of people putting themselves forward for careers in Westminster would change. People with little to lose might make a stab at it, while those with much to lose might think about side-stepping any political calling.
Politics, until then, had attracted a good deal of people who had a variety of lucrative side careers (at the Bar, for instance). There are, of course, those who believe that being an MP should be a full-time job, completely filling every hour of every day, in an endless push of unceasing legislation. But many think politics would be better if MPs were discouraged from being overly busy in the House. One effect of the expenses scandal was to discourage from Westminster anybody who had the skill, ability and sufficient demand for their services to combine two careers. They started to hesitate before considering politics.
The public shaming during that period was such that it (rightly) harmed not just every culprit’s political ambitions but their reputation in every field of their life. As a result, people who did not need this sort of aggravation in their life simply stayed away.
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The advantages of being an MP inverted in a morass of public distrust and dislike. As their reputation plummeted, going in to politics turned from something that might burnish a person’s reputation to something that could only diminish it. Parliament started to look unattractive to people with a lot of options in front of them, attracting people with very few – if any – alternatives.
“No big loss” some people will say. And perhaps they are right. Perhaps Parliamentarians should be solely dedicated to the one job that they have been elected to perform in the House of Commons. But it is futile to deny that such a settled consensus attracts – and creates – a particular type of person. The type of person who is happiest of all sitting on committees, coming up with minor pieces of legislation and disputing with colleagues over these committee and legislative matters.
Perhaps such people are needed in politics. But for a political scene to be successful, it must attract people with a wide variety of skills and attributes. Among them will be those who are distinguished but impatient, those who are daring rather than cautious, and those who are willing to take risks rather than proceeding timidly according to the moment’s norm.
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After a set of embarrassments as comprehensive as those of a decade ago, it was inevitable that things would change. And indeed they did. The expenses system back then was rotten, not just allowing for abuse, but clearly encouraging it. The fact that a number of people went to prison for their extreme version of what most other Parliamentarians were doing was evidence that the system needed exposing and revising.
But as you look around the benches of all the major parties in Parliament today, you will see another effect of the scandal. They are all increasingly filled with people for whom politics is absolutely everything and who, therefore, have very little to bring to it. Few have achieved anything distinctive before heading into it. Few are in demand after leaving it.
The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, for example, went to run a bus company in 2017, after losing his seat in the previous general election. A year later, he announced that he was leaving the role for unspecified future challenges after having “achieved goals“.
Who knows? Perhaps the consequences of this first political earthquake of the decade were among the reasons that the system was so unable to cope with the second. The House of Commons today seems to be increasingly stacked with people who are timid, limited and fearful of taking risks. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that people with little hinterland of their own can envisage little hinterland for the country they aspire to run.