We are all gripped by Indian election fever here. People who had not previously heard of anyone beyond the Gandhi-Nehru purview, and not much of that, are bandying names and acronyms about as familiarly as those of our own political parties and institutions. So much for a globalized world and, of course, the South Asian diaspora, and it is certainly true that politics in India is a good deal more interesting for us at the moment than anything that is happening on our own Westminster frontline.
In fact, nothing much is happening there at all at the moment, as both Houses of parliament are on their Easter recess. The prime minister is on holiday in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and has been photographed there in his usual holiday uniform of khaki shorts and blue shirt to prove, one supposes, that he hasn’t a care in the world, least of all over his erstwhile culture secretary, Maria Miller, who finally gave in to outraged public opinion much too late in the day and resigned last week in the wake of another expenses scandal. We had, as usual, until she thankfully fell on her sword, been assured that she had her prime minister’s full support.
Really. She probably did too and that only makes things worse. At the point that the public believes she did something wrong, it almost ceases to matter what the whole story was and whether or not she was guilty of anything more than absent-mindedness or bad accounting. Better just to go quietly and quickly, not embarrass your party and parliament, avoid the media storm and come back equally quietly sometime later when the dirty linen has been washed in private or proven never to have been more than very slightly stained. If she were good enough, she would have been back for sure before or after the general election next year with all of this consigned to distant memory and experience. Depressingly, she will probably be back anyway.
There is a new history of parliament published this month by Chris Bryant, MP, one of the MPs who fought strenuously to expose the phone hacking scandal at News International. This is the first of two volumes and, in a chapter headed “Honourable Members”, he discusses earlier parliamentary mishaps and misdemeanours when disgraced MPs fell on their swords in reality not metaphor, or more or less. Lord Castlereagh, by then Marquess of Londonderry after his father’s death, died by his own hand in the face of extreme public criticism, stabbing himself in the neck with a penknife. He was almost certainly insane at the time but there were claims of a cover-up when a verdict of insanity allowed him to be buried with honour in Westminster Abbey rather than suffering the ignominy meted out to suicides in times when the act was considered a crime.
Chris Bryant writes at the end of the chapter that parliament “retained an image of itself as the embodiment of honourable deportment throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It sought to abide by a strict set of mostly unwritten rules that harked back to an era of chivalry and martial prowess... little deviation from the norm was allowed and miscreants were dealt with robustly. With the unstoppable proliferation of newspapers and satires, a new era of societal scrutiny was beginning in which MPs had either to prove their honour or accept their disgrace. Politicians now feared less the monarch’s wrath or the executioner’s blade and more the public’s scorn, humiliation and ostracism. Few now begged for their lives but many lamented like Cassio in Othello: “O! I have lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial.”
Well, we have moved on again since the 19th century — now politicians don’t appear to care about public scorn or their reputations and their immortal parts are so well hidden that it takes a forcible push to make them do the right thing and still not face the bestial side of themselves.
What did Miller do? Well, she subsidized her parents’ council tax payments with her parliamentary expenses. It is all to do with the question of MPs needing homes both in their constituencies and in London, where they work for part of the week in parliament, and the expenses claimed for one or the other of these houses and the juggling thereof to provide MPs with the greatest value. Not the worst sort of corruption, but slightly tricky stuff and all round a bit grubby, like most financial juggling where one individual comes out better at a cost to all the rest of us taxpayers. We don’t like that one little bit and the press, of course, loves it very much indeed; there is nothing like financial double dealing among our public servants to sell papers. It only comes second to sex scandals.
Dear Maria was had up by the parliamentary commissioner for standards and told she had inappropriately claimed £45,000 of public money. This realistic judgement was overturned by MPs on the standards committee who downgraded her excess claim to a mere £5,800 and ordered her to repay that amount. Not surprisingly, Miller was perfectly happy to do so but unfortunately for her the whole story by that time was wall-to-wall headlines.
There followed the sort of performance that makes us wonder who on earth the people are who are supposed to be governing our country. Miller tried to squash the press story or, rather, her aides did it for her, accusing newspapers of a vendetta against her owing to her earlier involvement in the Leveson press regulation legislation post the Leveson inquiry into press standards, and also for her support for gay marriage. It also emerged that she had attempted to intervene in the investigation into her activities by the parliamentary commissioner.
Finally she was forced into a graceless apology in the House of Commons, 30 seconds of which resulted in a louder outcry, including an accusation from the former Speaker of the House of Commons, the highly respected Betty Boothroyd, of “bringing Parliament into disrepute”. Miller’s letter of resignation from the cabinet did not include any further apology. The prime minister has egg on his face for supporting the insupportable and it remains to be seen what Miller’s disgusted constituents in Basingstoke think about the whole saga. As I said earlier, depressingly, if they re-adopt her, she probably will be back in the cabinet, looking Teflon non-stick and smug and not a penknife in sight.
It is likely that part of the story is the lack of women in the cabinet and the need for greater female representation apparently outweighing, in the mind of the prime minister, the need for probity among cabinet members and all those who govern us. Of course, he still insists that Miller did nothing wrong. We now only have three women who are full cabinet members, Theresa May, the home secretary, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary of state and Justine Greening at international development. Not much representation at the very highest level of government, then, for the estimated 32.153 million women of this country, but if we believe in equality working every which way that should not matter as much as having the right people in the cabinet, whatever their gender. After all this, I doubt that includes Maria Miller.
I must admit to being less than besotted by many of the women currently theoretically representing me in parliament, including my own local female MP who, as I have said before, spends a great deal too much time trying very publicly to improve her personal profile and take as many steps up the political ladder as quickly as she is able rather than looking after me. My latest, rather delightful, dig at her was courtesy of my husband who, after a record week for photographs of the fragrant lady in the local newspaper, wrote to the editor to ask for a ‘Claire Perry free edition’. Not only did he very nearly get it the following week, but his letter was published. Sadly, Ms Perry is so certain of her importance that she probably thought it was all a joke.