A phrase we've been hearing a lot of over the last few days is, "If it was us". Indignant constituents have been using it when reporters ask them to comment on the expense claims of their MPs: "If it was us we would be in court", they point out, or "If it was us we'd be in prison". It's a remark that neatly encapsulates the deep sense of unfairness that is one source of the public outrage about MP's expenses. It also reinforces a long-standing prejudice that politicians are a "them" – a species apart identifiable by their venality and double-dealing.
In the circumstances I suppose it isn't a very surprising reaction but I have found myself wondering how often people have asked themselves the "If it was us" question in the other direction? Not what would happen to MPs if they were ordinary electors, in other words, but what would happen to ordinary electors if they found themselves as MPs, negotiating the system of allowances and entitlements which is currently under assault.
I've thought about it a bit myself and I can't say with any confidence that I would have carried the banner high for self-denial, even though I don't think of myself as a monster of greed. Think about it for a moment. The very word "entitlement" in itself would wear away at restraint, not to mention the reported readiness of the fees office, in some cases, to encourage the full exercise of one's "rights".
Around you colleagues would be offering advice as to the best way to take advantage of your allowances and already the unsavoury undertow of the words "take advantage" would be beginning to lose some of their force. You work hard. This is, as you understand it, part of your terms of employment. Then you're handed a list of goods, identifying a guide price for various items for which you're "entitled" to claim reimbursement.
Do you look at it and say "£750 seems awfully generous for a television – I'm sure I can manage with a cheaper set". Or do you think "I wonder what's the biggest I can get for £749.99?" Free stuff is being given away – and though some part of you might be wondering whether this is quite right, another part of you will be thinking "yippee". (Oddly neither riches nor wisdom seems to quell this childish instinct, a truth that is apparent if you ever attend a function at which goodie bags are given away, when the rich and the wise are often conspicuously to the fore in the queue.)
This isn't to argue that the expenses system isn't rotten or that some MPs aren't very greedy. It is and some of them are. But it is to suggest that any 646 people picked at random from the British public would probably have behaved in a pretty similar way. MPs as a body aren't more self-interested than the rest of us. They are at worst representatively self-interested – and possibly even marginally less so I would guess, since quite a few of them will have sacrificed either leisure or money to do the job. And they didn't all huddle in secret cabal to come up with the best way of robbing the taxpayer blind. They accepted accommodations and fudges which – with a gradualness which was probably seductive in itself – created a system which blurred the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable reimbursement.
That's where the rottenness of the system lies – that it takes people who do know better and stealthily blunts the edge of their ethical knowledge. It unquestionably needs mending – but a mood of punitive humbug, a mood that assumes that the average citizen (let alone the average BNP candidate) will be purer than a three-parliament veteran isn't just self-righteous, it's dangerous too.
Labours on Love Land come to a premature conclusion
I can't feel that it is a huge tragedy for the people of China that Love Land, a sex theme park due to open later in the year, has been bulldozed by the Chinese authorities, who appear to have been seized by one of their not infrequent attacks of prudishness.
The park's manager and promoter Lu Xiaoqing claimed that he was moved by nothing but a desire to educate his potential customers. "We are building the park for the good of the public," he said, though he admitted that he would have to be careful "not to make the park look vulgar and nasty."
Tastes differ in these matters of course, but I'm not exactly sure how his entrance sign – a giant pair of female legs adorned with a painted-on thong – passed his quality control standards. From the front it's unsettlingly reminiscent of someone in a pair of Y-fronts but when it rotates and presents its rump, it's even worse.
That's the problem with all such enterprises, of course, including the Trocadero's Amora sex theme park. They strive desperately for the sensual and erotic and generally end up looking smuttily infantile – since they lack the one thing that lifts sex above the ridiculous – breathless desire.
A massage session in the name of art
I had a massage last week – an experience which I generally try to avoid. I've declined foot massages on Thai beaches, Ayurvedic massages in India and après-ski massages in the French Alps – ignoring the appeals of companions who tell me how marvellously relaxing it will be because I was pretty confident I'd spend the entire session alternating between a rigor of embarrassment and spasms of ticklishness.
I gave in for art – since Anish Kapoor's installation Imagined Monochrome at the Brighton Festival requires participants to submit as part of the process. You are led into a windowless basement room with a very bright white panel in the ceiling. Two white-coated masseuses invite you to lie back on a massage table beneath the light and close your eyes. While one of the women gently stroked my arm I tried not to flinch too obviously and wondered whether the greeny-gold and fuschia flares I could see on the inside of my eyeballs were the point – or whether its meaning lay somewhere else, in the David Lynchean setup of the thing.
I'm still not sure, but it was so tranquilising that I had to have a double-shot latte to restore my system to a state of tension I could work with.