“Politicians who behave like Billy Graham cannot complain if converts get carried away” – Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of the UK Labour Party.
British hypocrisy is not a nice subject, and as there is nothing so satisfying as to see a moralist or a Holier-Than-Thou fall off his high horse, you might as well brace yourself for what is coming. Do you remember the British MP, Paul Tyler, who many years ago snootily declared that: “Trains are only suitable for typists”? And Mrs Thatcher’s minister for public transport, Steve Norris, who, comparing the advantages of private and public transport, said in praise of the car: “You have your own company, your own temperature control, your own music, and [you] don’t have to put up with dreadful human beings sitting beside you”?
Well, in the past few weeks, those of us fortunate enough to be living in Her Majesty’s Kingdom have been treated to a show that has gone a long way to explaining why British MPs could be so snobbish: They’ve been living the high life on the largesse of the taxpayer by systematically abusing the parliamentary expenses system (see story on p. 22). If there ever was a time when the term “honourable” – used to describe MPs – lost its meaning, this is it! Imagine MPs, who are supposed to be the conscience of British society, helping themselves to public money like there was no tomorrow? And though they say it was all “within the rules”, they queue up to apologise to the public for being so fraudulent with their expenses claims?
If this had happened in Africa, we would have undoubtedly seen some of the same British MPs and other sundry Western officials pontificating on how terrible corruption and corrupt officials were. Over the years, such sanctimoniousness has given corruption a face, and it is African! As a result, Western-based groups such as Transparency International (TI) have made their name on exposing (sorry, mocking) the Africans’ alleged propensity for corruption. The TI’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index that tracks global corruption has become famous for stacking African countries year in year out at the top as the most corrupt in the world.
Yes, there is corruption in Africa; it is a fact we can’t run away from. Sometimes it is monumental. We admit it with shame. But, as we’ve just seen in Britain, corruption is not – and can never be – African. It is “a human condition”, as one of my British colleagues in the office puts it. So everybody should be careful not to appear too holier-than-thou when discussing or preaching to other people about corruption. Which reminds me of the motto and legend of the once mighty Liverpool FC (my team, incidentally): “You’ll never walk alone”. How apt, you Reds! When it comes to corruption and fraud, Africa does not walk alone. At the least, somewhere in the bowels of the so-called mother of parliaments, there are a group of people (as has recently been proven) who walk hand in hand with Africa’s corrupt officials, except that it has taken too long for the Brits to be found out on this massive scale.
I can hear you say, “but, technically what has happened in the British Parliament is not corruption, but fraud, a lesser offence”. Well, it may be fraud with a British address all right, but I say fraud is the brother of corruption – same family, same mores, same effect. So the next time a British or Western official or journalist or businessman preaches to you about corruption, please show him a copy of The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that bought the rights to the leaked expenses claims of the British MPs that made it possible for the great British public to know what their MPs have been up to. And then the MPs did the unthinkable by blaming the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, for what? For not having the diligence to see and stop their fraudulent claims, and also trying to block the claim details from becoming public knowledge. For this, they turned him into a scapegoat and sacrificed him to assuage public anger. But I don’t get it. Which is more offensive – the fraudulent claims or the Speaker’s actions? And if the Speaker should resign, doesn’t it follow that the men and women who really lined their pockets with taxpayers’ money should go with him?
As Tom Moore of Newcastle upon Tyne wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “The sacrifice of Michael Martin on the altar of sleaze is a mere palliative intended to deflect the public from the shameful and downright criminal actions of a number of MPs… Westminster requires a thorough deep-clean to restore any semblance of confidence. Parliament has been unable or reluctant to do this and responsibility should pass to the electorate. An election should be called at the soonest opportunity, preferably after the summer recess, to allow the public to decide in whom we put our trust to serve us well and with dignity.” He was supported by Stuart Seear of Newlyn, Cornwall: “If MPs think that by cutting off the figurehead, they will save the sinking ship, they are sadly mistaken. The only ones left floating when the ship goes down at the next general election will be those with the lightest expense claims.”
Michael White of The Guardian concurred: “It is wrong to blame [the Speaker] for the decay of parliament; he has been a symptom, not the cause. But scapegoats are always needed in a crisis. Among the plaques on the stone floor of the ancient Westminster Hall, next door to the modern Commons, is one which marks the trial of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, Charles I’s military and political hard man. As the civil war loomed, Strafford was impeached, convicted by a Commons bill of attainder (204 votes to 59) and executed at Tower Hill in 1641. The King had thrown him off the royal coach, [but this] did not save him [the King]… The case against Martin is that he was too much a supporter of the status quo, too much the shop steward defending the interests of MPs against a media he had never liked… On both sides [of the House], they know that one defence has now fallen, leaving miscreant MPs more exposed than before to the wrath of the media, their local party activists, and the voters.”
On which, Sarah Lyall, writing in The New York Times, said: “Some commentators [have] suggested that Parliament be dissolved, as it was in 1653, when Oliver Cromwell is said to have shouted: ‘Depart, I say; and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!’ The Guardian online added: “The row over MPs’ expenses and the role of the Commons Speaker has led to widespread sentiment that an entire political class has been discredited. There is now a growing recognition that no return to ‘business as usual’ in Westminster is possible: the machinery of representative democracy, legislature and the executive is dysfunctional and ripe for reform.” It is a view much shared by George Galloway, the former Labour (and now Respect Party) MP. “English snobbery,” he wrote, “can do a morris dance of delight at the political demise of the Speaker, Michael Martin. The bigots have put the taigs back in their place. Above all the MPs desperately seeking solace from the evisceration of the expenses scandal hope this will be enough to staunch the haemorrhage in public confidence. For a certain class of Englishman, every Catholic is a Mick and every working-class Scot is from the Gorbals. In fact, Michael Martin – it was always Michael! – has no connection to the Gorbals, but his elevation was a fillip to both: the first manual worker to sit in that ancient seat and the first Catholic since Cromwell to surmount the still considerable prejudice. Thanks to Speaker Martin my grandson Sean enjoyed the first Catholic baptism in the House of Commons Crypt since Cromwell turned it into a stable.
“[Martin] did not invent the discredited system of parliamentary allowances – that came largely under the ‘distinguished’ speakership of Lord Weatherill and became especially lucrative during the golden era of Betty Boothroyd. Under both, MPs believed that allowances were but a supplementary salary, their receipts notional and in any case highly secret… We need a revolution in public life, halving the size of the lower House, and directly electing the revising chamber – all by proportional representation. We need transparent and contemporary disclosure of all financial details – publish the income tax returns and all details of perks, outside jobs and jollies. Party funding and election spending decisions must be part and parcel of the reform. None of this can be done by the current discredited House of Commons.”
That left Peter Kellner putting the icing on the cake, in The Daily Telegraph: “Perhaps now, when the crisis of legitimacy is so profound, the chance exists for a change in culture,” he wrote. “If they do abandon their old habits, then, as so often in the past, MPs and parties will reform their ways not chiefly because it is the morally right thing to do, but because it is in their interest… “I have one proposal. Could journalists and politicians please stop referring to Westminster as ‘the mother of parliaments’? It is historically false – Iceland’s Althing is far older – and badly misrepresents the original quotation. What John Bright, the reformist Liberal MP, actually said in 1865 was: ‘England is the mother of parliaments’… Were Bright alive today, he would doubtless be mystified by both the misquotation and the [MPs’] allowances row.”
Sensing the dark mood of the public, it was left to Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to do the decent thing. “Please allow me to say to the men and women of the United Kingdom that we have let you down very badly indeed. We must all accept the blame and, to the extent that I have contributed to the situation, I am profoundly sorry,” Clegg said. Which left this poor Ghanaian from the far-away shores of the Guinea Coast of Africa, shaking his head in disbelief and asking: “Is this the Great Britain that occupied huge space in our history lessons at school in Africa? Perhaps not!”