Editor-At-Large: The class rift at the heart of the expenses debacle

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The Independent Online

I laughed and laughed when a hapless MP moaned last week about the hypocrisy of journalists attacking MPs for creative work with their expenses. Well, if only I could claim that my work for this newspaper required my Aga being serviced or my garden weeded, and that charity wreaths, comedy wigs, flapjacks and hair straighteners were essential to carrying out my duties, I'd be thrilled. If I could charge for food against tax, you'd all be invited round on a rotating basis. Even now, MPs just don't get it, do they? On the radio on Friday, someone was trying to justify the expenses debacle by waffling, "They work in a palace, so this kind of grand behaviour has just rubbed off on them." I'm sure that the Queen's footmen can't claim for duck ponds, second homes or crisps, so that argument clearly doesn't wash. Another commentator called it "a sickness" – well, it's a pretty attractive disease that's got them a lot of property, big tellies, and a grandiose sense of their own importance.

Less than 10 per cent of our MPs come from working-class backgrounds, but even the ones who had humble origins had their noses in the trough like everyone else, and to some extent, who can blame them? If we thought we could get away with it, most people would be collecting receipts for nappies, opera programmes, tea trays and slug pellets and claiming they were tools of their trade. The real reason MPs wanted the details of their expenses blocked out was nothing to do with security, and everything to do with personal taste. For now we know just how rigid the British class system is – a detailed analysis of this pile of millions of stupid little slips of paper demonstrates not just duplicity on a huge scale, but that we have a class system that remains virtually unchanged despite 12 years of Labour.

Take food: it's a real indicator of class. The biggest claims come from fatties on the left – Nick Brown and Charles Clarke, for example. There are bills for jellied eels, pork pies, cheap biscuits and Minstrels. Hardly nouvelle cuisine. The Tories, on the other hand, whack in claims for Aga servicing (Oliver Letwin), orchids, Glyndebourne programmes, and £395 Mulberry laptop bags (all his fellow old Etonian Hugo Swire). Tories live in homes with moats, duck ponds, driveways and servants' quarters. Labour people have dry rot, cheap kitchen cupboards, laminate flooring, glittery toilet seats and fake Tudor beams (John Prescott).

In spite of Labour's much-trumpeted aim of a more equal society, we've ended up with the same rigid social divides, just packaged a bit differently. Upper and middle-class Tories inherit furniture, crumbling old houses, Agas and relatives who have fashionable furniture companies. Labour people employ their mates to do a bit of make-do-and-mend plumbing and decorating, and are desperately trying to claw their way up the property ladder, not having inherited anything other than a big mortgage.

New Labour MPs love big tellies, gadgetry and overpriced champagne glasses. David Cameron, on the other hand, thinks nothing of spending £32 on a tea tray; Michael Gove buys his mugs at Tate Modern and has seagrass rugs. Labour MPs have caravans, cheap-looking summer houses which are actually big sheds (Gordon Brown) and bedding plants. Tories have conservatories, acres of lawn, wisteria and trailing vines. One Tory even had the bare-faced cheek to get the taxpayer to cough up for jam-making equipment, including a preserving thermometer and muslin for straining fruit to make jelly. I don't imagine there's a lot of call for that in Tower Hamlets or Luton South.

The kind of people entering politics hasn't changed much in half a century. Too many people trained as lawyers, left university and became researchers. We need MPs from a wider social base: Parliament is lacking economists, teachers, doctors, people who have worked at the coal face of modern life. They should be accountable for their actions and be vetted annually. The Government has burdened the police, the NHS and the teaching profession with the need to be accountable. Strange how this doesn't apply to them. By introducing rigid vetting, politics will attract people with commitment and real social values, not the dubious ones they inherited from mum and dad.

No more Fry ups: Stephen reveals new slim self

Check out the new slender Stephen Fry. Don't you just want to give him a hug and feel his ribs?

Stephen, (unusually for this socially adept individual) was off my family and friends list when he misjudged the mood of the nation to let it be known he thought the furore over MPs expenses was a "fuss about nothing important". Thankfully, we've heard nothing from him on the subject since.

Last week he was on Radio 4 launching the new series of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. But when I saw that Stephen had shed almost six stone over the past six months, I forgave his crass remarks about MPs. In Kingdom (ITV1 tonight) he looks like a big blob. In reality, he's a new man – walking everywhere and feeling positive, in spite of suffering from manic depression.

So much bilge is written about women on diets, we tend to forget just how hard it is for middle-aged men to regain their self-esteem and their waists. Women have hijacked body issues, to the point where most blokes are too ashamed to ask for help. Stephen is a great role model, so perhaps more men will follow his example, cut out bread, potatoes and sugar, and start walking.

Don't let men have all the fun

After a trial scheme in a Manchester store, branches of Boots the chemists all over Britain will be selling Viagra, without a doctor's prescription.

I suppose if you find talking to your doctor embarrassing, this might represent some sort of progress, but men still have to be put through a half-hour chat with a pharmacist who tests their blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose before dispensing the drug if they have no medical conditions which might react unfavourably.

But why can't women be allowed to take Viagra if they want to spice up their sex lives? It's freely available on the black market – and many women say it makes you feel great.

Surely Viagra should just be licensed and sold as a recreational drug, if people are fit.

What about victims' rights?

It was a great idea – a striking poster using mug shots of two convicted criminals, along with computer images of what they might look like when they get released, in 40 years' time. Manchester police produced the billboard campaign to act as a deterrent and to thank the public for giving them information which brought the pair to justice.

The gruesome twosome were leaders of a gang linked to a series of murders in the North-west over 20 years. I was shocked to discover that their relatives, backed by the civil rights group Liberty, plan to sue the police claiming that the use of the images infringes their privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights. You could not make it up. What about the human rights of all the children, wives and partners who have been bereaved as a result of these two career criminals? This legal action should be chucked out of court.