Riddled with corruption? I don't buy it

Driven by envy, public moral fervour over MPs and sleaze has made mountains out of molehills
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Power corrupts, as we all know. But the converse is also true; impotence purifies. That is the point to bear in mind, whichever way today's vote on the Nolan report goes.

Labour, purified by 16 years in opposition, simply cannot lose. The public wants to hear what Mr Blair and his sidekicks will spend all day saying: the Tories have something to hide.

Yes folks: the Conservative Party is riddled with corruption. Every second MP is on the payroll of some dodgy "consultancy" firm or other, and the rest are available on a freelance basis. For the price of a decent lunch at Shepherd's and a cheque for pounds 1,000, they will happily ask any question and table any motion. The worst excesses of the worst banana republic have got nothing on Mr Major's party.

Well, if you buy the idea of a Tory monopoly on sleaze, you'll buy just about anything. Need I do more than mention the names Stonehouse and Belcher? Or what about the Marconi scandal, which nearly wrecked the career of Lloyd George, that most radical of Liberals?

The same point would leap off the pages of a decent history of British local government. Indeed, growing up in Glasgow, I came to associate sleaze with certain Labour councillors who were hand in glove with (not to say related by blood and marriage to) certain building contractors.

Look abroad if you still cling to the notion of a unique nexus between sleaze and the right. In Belgium, in Spain and in France - to say nothing of the outstandingly venal United States - corruption is a cross-party function of being in power. (In super-efficient Germany, as the Flick scandal revealed, some companies just dish out the dosh to all the major parties)

Only when you appreciate the link between corruption and power, do you begin to see how laughable the entire Nolan business really is. To me, the bizarre thing is that anyone should ever consider Tory MPs worth paying, in the way "exposed" by the Sunday Times. The plain fact is that MPs - and most junior ministers - do not really have power. Indeed, I almost feel sorry for anyone who has parted with hard-earned cash merely for some political nonentity to pose a question in the Commons. Did no one tell them about the transfer of power from the legislature to the executive?

The point is that there is only one sort of sleaze worth worrying about, and that is the sort involving ministers, or indeed civil servants. Put it this way, and you realise what a remarkably uncorrupt government we have had since 1979.

There have been sex scandals, of course. And yes, it seems likely - though we still await the Scott report - that ministers bent their own rules governing the sale of arms to Iraq. But it takes a peculiar sort of warped Puritanism to think that a man cannot run a government department simply because he likes to have it off in a Chelsea strip. And the worst conclusion to be drawn about Matrix Churchill is that, far from being in hock to the arms dealers, certain ministers were ready to let the company's directors go to jail rather than reveal their own complicity in a covert export drive. No one has suggested for a minute that the ministers in question stood to gain financially from the trade with Iraq.

The reality is that British political life remains, by international standards, boringly punctilious. Which is not surprising, considering what mountains the press and public have made out of the pre-Nolan molehills.

So why do companies bother paying for the services of backbench MPs? For much the same reason, it seems to me, that accountancy firms take would-be clients for games of golf, drug companies shower doctors with free stationery, journalists take contacts for liver-curdling lunches and travel firms send journalists on skin-scorching holidays. Such transactions - some of which lead to reciprocal favours, but many of which do not - are simply what makes our world go round. And in a country in which the state spends the equivalent of about 40 per cent of GNP, it would be odd if such freebies and perks never came the way of MPs.

The notion implicit in Labour's line of argument - that MPs should only represent their constituents, should represent them all equally, and should live on nothing but their salary - is absurd.

Of course, not everyone is part of the Great Chain of Buying. Roughly one fifth of the population is "corrupted" in a rather different way, in the form of doles from the state itself. These are often the same people who pester MPs for improvements in the level of benefits to which they believe themselves to be entitled, and vote for the candidate who promises the biggest improvement.

In short, public enthusiasm for new Labour's rhetoric about Nolan is the snow-white tip of a grey iceberg of hypocrisy. Well, I for one am not prepared to join in. As it happens, I find myself in a position not dissimilar to that of MPs today. I am employed as a Fellow and lecturer at a university, for which I am paid even less than an MP. A substantial piece of my income comes from writing pieces like this.

As things stand now, that is a matter between me, my accountant and the taxman. But every now and then Blair-like voices demand that we should all declare our outside earnings. The motive for this is clear: university bureaucrats want to get their hands on at least a proportion of what I and others earn "on the side". It has been argued that, because I am an employee of the university, all my income is in some sense the university's, to be taxed and redistributed as it sees fit.

Were such a measure to be introduced, I would be out of university life before you could say "something to hide". Even compulsory declaration of outside earnings would make me think twice. This would be a pity, because I rather like teaching, economically irrational though it is - just as I am sure many MPs like politics, though its opportunity cost is also high.

Why would disclosure of earnings worry me? Because, like the Tory MPs who have forced John Major to water down Nolan, I fear the envy of others. In other countries, to earn money from a variety of different sources is considered a sign of success. But even if everyone in the country were obliged to declare publicly their total earnings, the financial winners would be the moral losers.

I am not sure why envy is so powerful an emotion in this country. Perhaps it is the memory of wartime rationing. Perhaps it goes back to Puritan sermons about camels and needles' eyes. But the spirit of envy will be abroad today, in the House of Commons and in the country. Why not vote for the publication of all tax returns while you are at it, chaps?