Chris Bryant: Identifying these pariahs isn't about class warfare. It's about common decency


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The Independent Online

Politics is taking a strange, atomised, bitty trajectory at the moment. In one corner there are things that aren't quite what they seem.

Cameron's EU veto turns out to be no more than a UK opt-out. Just so, it turns out that Prince Andrew has not been sacked from his role as UKTI's Special Representative for Trade and Investment (as we thought had been announced last summer), but is actually carrying on business as usual with an all-expenses paid trip to Davos (jet, chalet and drinks reception), and a series of other meetings with foreign dignitaries lined up in the future.

And now it seems that the civil servant we thought had been employed to run the Student Loans Company isn't actually a civil servant paid in the conventional way, but a private contractor paid via his own company, his arrangements (which saved him some £40,000 pa) authorised by some as yet unnamed being.

Danny Alexander, who, with David Willetts, was somehow involved in the decision, was asked about this in the Commons but refused to accept any responsibility, resorting to what is now known as the "Murdoch defence" – namely that he wasn't shown and didn't see (and didn't, one might suggest, ask for) the details.

And then there's the growing list of pariahs, all of them tried in the court of public opinion. Last week it was Stephen Hester and his bonus. This week it's Fred Goodwin. Doubtless there'll be someone else next week. Emblems of a bloated, arrogant, self-satisfied City elite who are completely bewildered that anyone could ask whether their remuneration had been rather over-generous.

But the problem is not the one-offs. It's the system that sees boardroom pay soar by 49 per cent while the cleaners who have to scurry round their feet get a pay freeze on a pittance. This isn't about class warfare. It's just about a sense of common decency. Because above all in an age of austerity the sense, that there is one rule for the rich and another for the rest of us is dangerously unsettling.

I know government by hysterical outrage is rarely a success. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. But my fear is that ordinary working people, who are working harder and longer for salaries that are losing value, will simply look at the all these stories and think work is a mug's game.

Five portraits of political failure

Overlooking Westminster Bridge, there is a room in the Commons with oak-panelling to head height and hideous yellow walls above. It must have been a dining room, as it has a serving room adjacent to it with a large buffet. But now it is the shadow Cabinet room.

I've been intrigued for a while about the five portraits. The largest is of Sir Arthur Haselrig MP, an absurd, bold and almost certainly corrupt man who sat on the Commonwealth Council of State and who died in the Tower awaiting trial for treason on 7 January 1661. To his left is his colleague, young Sir Henry Vane MP (to distinguish from his father), one of the leading figures in the English revolution who was angrily executed in 1662. To Haselrig's right is John Hampden, the MP who fought against Charles I's un-parliamentary exaction of ship money and who died on 24 June 1643 from wounds probably received when his gun exploded in his face at the battle of Chalgrove Field.

Above one fireplace is Charles I, executed outside Banqueting House on 31 January 1649. And opposite him, the only one of the five who died quietly in his bed, William Pierrepont MP, who did everything he could to prevent the restoration of the monarchy.

I know not whose idea it was to put this five together, but maybe it just reinforces the message that every political career ends in failure. Even Pierrepont lost his seat in the 1661 election, never to return.

The tragedy of wasted talent

On Tuesday evening in the Speaker's House, the Tory MP for Wirral West, Esther McVey, held an event with the National Youth Theatre, with whom she has produced a play called If Chloe Can. We were treated to an excerpt.

Perhaps the most striking moment of the evening, though, was a fantastic poem, written and recited by another of the NYT members, about wasted talent and lack of ambition among young women. It reminded me of the most depressing moment I have yet experienced as MP for the Rhondda when I asked a 17-year-old what she hoped to do after school. "I'd like to be a lawyer, but Careers say that girls from the Rhondda don't get to be lawyers, so I'm not sure." I could have boiled with fury or cried with sadness.

The director makes beautiful music

Which reminds me, as well as a spell in the NYT in the 1970s and 80s, I played Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera while at Oxford. I wasn't particularly good but I was particularly fed up with our director, who had a habit of calling the wrong actors for rehearsals, so we ended up practising some scenes time and again and others rarely. Eventually, my temper broke when he came into my dressing room for the dress rehearsal and offered me some "tips" on my singing.

I let rip. "You're the worst director I've ever worked with. You know nothing about theatre, or music or singing. Leave me alone." Well, Ian Bostridge, for 'twas he, now has countless beautiful classical CDs to his name, has recently performed at the Carnegie Hall and will be appearing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall singing Bach Arias with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on 25 April. What do I know?