You probably haven't heard of Philip Hollobone, unless you live in Kettering and elected him your MP. But Mr Hollobone deserves a distinguished service medal this week – after all, his parsimony probably rules him out of a peerage. Mr Hollobone it was who submitted the lowest annual expenses claim of any member of the Commons. In so doing, he helped to keep the average MP's claim below £140,000, on top, that is, of the basic salary of just short of £60,000.
MPs, of course, have many legitimate expenses. They have to travel to their constituencies, keep a couple of residences, and maintain offices. Preoccupied as we ordinary mortals are with rising interest rates, devalued pensions, and the prospect of another run on the bank, perhaps we simply haven't caught up with the cost of our democratic representatives.
There is naturally an element of jealousy – but also, I sense, something more. A distance has opened up between a protected political class and the rest.
We have learnt in recent weeks of Mr and Mrs Ed Balls, on ministerial salaries both, arranging their affairs, quite legally, to maximise their handsome allowances and tax breaks. We have learnt that Mr Brown has turned over a flat to Mrs Brown – legally – for tax reasons. And we have learnt that the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, has been complaining about the sub-£60k per annum pension he has been awarded after 10 years' ministerial service. He also qualifies for a lump sum that is still being negotiated.
Thoughts crowd in here, do they not? Resentful thoughts, by and large. How come a minister's pension arrangements are negotiable? Will we taxpayers who foot the bill ever know the details? Why should we have to invoke the Freedom of Information Act to obtain even the most general breakdown of an MP's expenses. Why should they not be a matter of routine public record? Nor are MPs and ministers alone in the layered security blanket of money and privacy they enjoy. Senior Home Office staff – I take a department at random – received £2m in bonuses over the past two years, "agreed at board level". Exactly who got what was not released for privacy reasons; we know only how many received about how much.
BBC bosses sensibly forewent bonuses for last year, given the staff cuts they already anticipated. In the NHS, Maidstone is the latest health authority to smother in confidentiality the earnings and bonuses of those who presided over a succession of superbug crises.
There is here a confusion between public and private sector ways of doing things which doubly rewards the upper echelon at the expense of everyone else. While junior jobs are being "outsourced" to low-paid agency workers, members of a new quasi-professional quasi-political elite are awarding themselves salary increases far above inflation and divvying up bonuses like City adventurers. Remember, this is what we – wishfully, perhaps – still call the public sector.
To job security, regular hours and guaranteed pensions have now been added a culture of bonuses, pay-offs and confidentiality incorporated from the private sector. No wonder terms such as gilt-edged and gold-plated are being bandied about. Now we know the real meaning of public-private partnership.
All the more galling should be the recognition that entry to this cosseted circle is increasingly closed. Its members are related to each other, consort with each other, marry each other, and nominate each other to each other's sinecures. This used to be the French way. Now France is trying to break down its ossified technocracy, even as Britain's half-century of social fluidity is coagulating into a new, self-perpetuating and self-interested elite. The commentator Peter Oborne is right to talk, in his latest book, of the "triumph of the political class".
You can't bar siblings from serving in the same government, or bright young politicians from marrying each other, though you could surely exclude friends and partners of BBC staff from serving on the corporation's trust. We could, however, demand Scandinavian-style disclosure for every institution that lives primarily off taxpayers' money. Are we not entitled to know who resides in that charmed circle, and how much we are paying them for their privilege?
Down and out? Far from it
Invidious to deal in stereotypes, I know, but Valerie Plame comes across as a very American example of irrepressible womanhood, the sort that takes the fight to the enemy and emerges victorious, still perfectly groomed. Ms Plame, you will recall, was at the centre of a political storm in Washington after her cover as a CIA agent was blown – and her career ruined – by someone not a million miles from the Bush administration. The presumed motive was to "punish" her husband, retired ambassador Joseph Wilson, for publicly challenging the President's claims about Iraq's nuclear ambitions as the US tried to make its case for war.
Heads rolled, sort of. But Ms Plame kept hers screwed firmly on. No victim she. Her account of her career, Fair Game. My Life as a Spy. My Betrayal by the White House, is just published. Smiling a pure American smile, she is promoting it on both sides of the Atlantic, and has made the CIA's lavish use of the blue pencil into a selling point. And she and her husband have been recruited as consultants for a Warner Bros film based on her "outing". Amazing how quickly a one-time covert agent adapts to the limelight.
Bring back public displays of timekeeping
Reassuring to hear Big Ben chiming the quarter hours over Westminster again, after seven weeks of silence for maintenance. Its comfortably familiar face, recently named one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world, is guaranteed to be one of the very few public timepieces to show the correct time tomorrow morning after the clocks go back for winter.
I will withhold comment on the merits of switching from British Summer Time, beyond appealing to devolved Scotland to introduce Scottish Winter Time and spare much of England the sad task of prematurely losing evening daylight. Let me instead draw attention to the disgraceful state of our public clocks. In prime tourist central London, I invariably pass more clocks showing the wrong time than the right. Some seem to have been left unattended – unwound, unrepaired, unloved – for years. Come to think of it, in how many jewellers' windows do you now see the displayed watches set to the right time?
You can find the same careless attitude to public timepieces all over the country. Market towns, Cotswold villages, civic centres – you name it, the public clocks are unlikely to give you the time of day. Contrast this with even tiny villages on the Continent, where the church or town hall clock proudly displays the correct time of day – even if they disagree by a couple of minutes.
Maybe this all sounds a little too much like Toytown for the first decade of the 21st century. But keeping the clock to time is also a matter of civic pride, and one that offers a simple and practical public service.
Should we not have official inspectors, whose job it is to report non-functioning or misleading clocks to an official local clock repairer? Just tell me where to apply.
Deborah Orr is awayReuse content