For every lash, there is a backlash, as Isaac Newton did not quite say. It has taken two weeks for the unease to set in, but in the past few days unease has been expressed about the ferocious condemnation of MPs over their expenses. The "systematic humiliation" of MPs is a threat to democracy, said Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, yesterday. "Many will now be wondering whether the point has not been adequately made."
We do not have to go as far as Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP who said that "everyone fears a suicide", to recognise that there is some truth in this. Nor is Ms Dorries the best person to say it, especially as her attempt to explain some of her expenses claims became somewhat confused, but she has a point when she suggests that there is a whiff of a "witch hunt" about.
Of course, the publication of expenses claims is a great journalistic enterprise, a tribute to the importance of freedom of information law and a vitally important moment of democratic cleansing. It has already achieved a transformation of the culture of the House of Commons. The rules on expenses have already been reformed. Furniture and food will be excluded; claims will be made public quickly and the regime will be supervised by an independent body. The changes that the party leaders have agreed are endorsed by the expert panel convened by The Independent on Sunday today. That change of culture will be marked by the election of a new Speaker next month. More reforms are to come, and rightly so.
Those advances are in danger, however, of being eclipsed by a vindictive fury directed at all MPs, saints and sinners alike. That sentiment is made worse by the complaints of MPs such as Ms Dorries or Sir Anthony Steen ("Do you know what it's about? Jealousy"). No wonder David Cameron disowned both of them sharpish. The anti-politician rage is a sentiment that could be destructive of the very idea of representative democracy.
The bottom line is that most MPs are decent, hard-working people. No, really. We are all justified in feeling angry about those that have fallen short of the high standards expected of those in public life. The conduct of some politicians has been, quite simply, a disgrace. A few may well be guilty of criminal offences and should feel the same force of the law that would be felt by, say, a benefit cheat. Many who hide behind the letter of the House of Commons rules have already been found guilty in the court of public opinion, only recently invoked as a legal authority on the avarice of bankers by Harriet Harman, the Prime Minister's deputy. An even larger number of MPs has been greedy or foolish or both. They deserve to be embarrassed and, in the worst cases, to have their political careers brought to an end.
The anger is justified, then, but it needs to be balanced by an awareness of two things. One is that not all MPs are "on the take", hard though that may be to believe after two weeks of continuous embarrassment. The other is that some of the misdemeanours are neither as straightforward nor as serious as they seem.
That is why we seek to inform public debate by publishing today the first comprehensive pull-out guide to all the second home claims of all MPs from 2004 to 2008. One thing that emerges from this compilation is that a lot of MPs make modest use of public funds. Another is that the majority take full or close to full advantage of the system of payments for second homes. Most out-of-London MPs claim at or close to the maximum every year. They have indeed treated it as an allowance to be added to their salary, rather than as a reimbursement for absolutely necessary costs incurred. Some MPs with small or no mortgages have used it as a form of subsidised trolley dash.
And yet, the principle that MPs with seats outside London should receive extra help from the public purse towards the cost of a second home is – unpopular though it might be to say so – surely right. Buy a state hostel in Vauxhall or pay for hotels by all means, but most MPs have to live in two places.
Instead of coolly appraising the principles that should underpin a fair system, the danger is that public opinion turns away from the compromises needed for democracy to work at all. Fortunately, it seems that the storm of public fury may be receding from the most extreme responses. Last week, we argued that the expenses revelations were a great opportunity to renew our democracy. If Archbishop Williams's warning is heeded, there is a better hope that, as a nation, we shall seize that chance.Reuse content