Deborah Orr: MPs get a taste of their own medicine

Politicians are now casualties of the decline in respect for public-sector workers

Share
Related Topics

It is self-evident that the Government's desire for alacrity in reforming MPs' expenses is a matter of political survival. The rush to a shake-up is entirely designed to neuter the slew of negative stories expected in July, when four years of claims are made public. Particular attention is being paid to the question of second homes, since that system has already been shown to be open to blatant manipulation.

It may not have made quite so much a contribution to the gaiety of the nation, but Jacqui Smith's unrepentant defence of her claim for a basin plug, not to mention her lucrative bunking-up at her sister's, is far more contemptible than her apology for the claim for her husband's adult movies.

Gordon Brown has declared that the message he wants to get across is that politicians are "there to serve the public, not to serve themselves". The odd thing is that he seems most keen to get this message across to the public, who already subscribe heavily to the idea that politicians are there to serve them, rather than the politicians, who sometimes behave as if they have forgotten this altogether.

Brown's problem is that the contempt for public service that has been fostered since the start of the Thatcher era appears to have been embraced with unquestioning enthusiasm by MPs themselves. The determination of many of them to avail themselves of any perk they can possibly access is underwritten by their belief that if they worked in the dynamic and efficient private sector, where "talent is properly rewarded", they would as a matter of course be earning much more money. They are hurt that this is not understood and appreciated, poor lambs.

Many MPs have persuaded themselves that public service is a kind of martyrdom, which automatically deprives them of the wonderful financial success they would otherwise certainly be enjoying. In a country where the average salary is £24,700 and the minimum wage, of which Labour is so proud, delivers a yearly salary of about £12,000 for a 40-hour week, many backbench MPs really seem to believe that £63,291 plus very generous expenses is some kind of pittance, impossible to live on unless one is relentless in the pursuit of related financial advantages. Attitudes among ministers, who build taxpayer-funded pergolas, or rent out their homes while living in grace-and-favour apartments, seem no more circumspect.

The 30-year-old mantra which decrees that working for the public sector is bad, while working for the private sector is good, has had many deeply damaging effects, of which this mythical idea that MPs are by definition making great financial and social sacrifices is just one. It has also nurtured, for sure, a general attitude whereby public sector workers are not respected as they should be. The general population is only too aware that the public sector is "there to serve the public" and makes no bones about reminding individuals at the sharp end that this is the case. Politicians themselves are not respected as they need to be in order to have legitimacy, and nor are other professionals, such as health or education workers.

This lack of respect is soul-destroying for many public-sector employees. On the wilder shores of this contempt lie tales of members of the public calling ambulances and requesting that they pick up fast food for them (which has really happened). In the mainstream, however, it compels teachers, for example, to stand before classes that contain pupils who have contempt for them, and are backed in their anti-social attitudes by parents who are equally hostile.

This declining respect, and the greater difficulty it causes for those at the front line, in itself has dictated that those in the upper echelons of public service seek out other more conventional measures of their worth. The sustained attack on the public sector that took place in the 1980s and 1990s has perversely encouraged a culture in which high salaries and perks are seen as necessary for very senior public sector appointments, because they are always, supposedly, competing with the decadent imprecations of the private sector. These very large salaries in turn promote the feeling that all public-sector workers are on a lucrative gravy train, and the lack of respect becomes yet more aggressive and self-righteous.

There is irony in the fact that politicians have been the most visible casualties of declining respect for public service. But it is not the sort of irony that could be described as "delicious". The disconnection so many people feel from the political process is tragic, and Brown's belated efforts to throw together a package of appeasement over expenses will add to that disenchantment rather than staunch it.

But the wider battle that has raged for decades now over the public sector is also self-defeating and perverse. Those who demand most vociferously the shrinking of the state, and who wail most theatrically over its recent expansion, appear to be deaf to the proposition that their own denigration of state employees is part of the problem. Nobody expects public sector workers to toil tirelessly for respect alone. But a general culture that is encouraged to believe that the public sector is there to be used and abused because "we pay your wages" is bound to be one that is more greatly beset by petty or meretricious demands on its resources.

Likewise, the demand for "results" to be displayed and proven, or targets to be met and advertised itself increases the need for expensive and intrusive bureaucracy. Denigration of the public sector actually makes it larger and more cumbersome, because it legitimises the idea that it has to be centrally controlled. The psychological effect on employees is demoralisation, and that in turn is damaging.

The Thatcherite approach to the public sector was to starve it of resources and autonomy so that consumers would turn to the private sector whenever they could. Labour, after its initial pledge to stick to Conservative spending plans, certainly did not continue with the former strategy.

Yet while it has invested in infrastructure and in salaries for some key workers, Labour has continued to treat the public sector as something that has to be centrally monitored, checked and tested constantly, something that must essentially be distrusted. At last, however, it has dawned on the political classes that they have fostered distrust of themselves as well, and that they are going to have to start taking some of the submitting to the regimes of testing and scrutiny that they so love to impose on others.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
Members of the House of Lords gather for the state opening of Parliament  

Peer pressure: The nobles in the Lords should know when to go

Jane Merrick
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick