Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


British Politics - Just Like Italian Politics These Days?
Corriere della Sera - May 12th 2009

For the past few days, the British public has been enjoying an unusual form of entertainment. It has consisted of daily revelations about the sums of money that British members of parliament have been claiming as expenses, and about the kind of things that these MPs consider to be valid items for reimbursement as part of their essential jobs as parliamentarians: gardening, house-cleaning, pornographic movies, dogfood. It has all been quite ridiculous and embarrassing.  The big surprise to me, however, was that I received a telephone call on Friday, when I was travelling by train from Milan to Udine for the Vicino/Lontano festival, from a journalist at Il Giornale, who wanted to interview me about this British scandal. Did it, she asked, mean that British politics is now just as dirty as Italian politics?

            Naturally enough, she did not like my answer: no, I said, I am afraid that is not the right conclusion to draw from this British affair, ridiculous and often outrageous though it certainly is. She also wanted me to say that given the deep economic crisis in Britain, and the clear discrediting of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, that British people are now angry about our whole political system, believing, with Italians, that we have a problem with our political “caste”. This is also, in my view, not true. So why not? Let me explain.

            The correct conclusion to draw from this British political scandal is not that our politicians have become more corrupt. It is that the method by which our Parliament chooses to pay our MPs is yet another example of the typical British sin of believing that we can have public services at a cheap price. Just as historically we have spent too little money on trains, schools and hospitals, so we have tried to pay too little money as salaries for our political representatives.

The salary of a British MP is the lowest among the major European economies, and Parliament has been reluctant to vote to raise it because to do so would risk provoking criticism. So it set up a system of permitted expenses, requiring detailed claims and receipts, that was intended as a covert means to enable MPs to increase their de facto incomes to acceptable levels.

            The income that British MPs have achieved by using that expenses system, and by employing their family members as “secretaries” with salaries paid by the taxpayer, is still lower than the incomes received by Italian parliamentarians. It is also much cheaper to live in Rome than in London. Now, however, two things have happened to expose British MPs to ridicule: first, our Freedom of Information law, passed by the Labour government soon after it entered power in 1997, is finally requiring Parliament to disclose all the MPs’ expenses claims; second, our Labour government is in its 12th year in power, so both the media and the public are sick and tired of it. Thus, they get great enjoyment from anything that embarrasses government ministers, and an expenses claim for two pornographic films, made by the Home Secretary (our minister of the interior), proved wonderfully entertaining.

            As all MPs take part in this absurd expenses system, the media ridicule has now turned also to the opposition parties. For that reason, this scandal is not really politically significant. This affair will have no detectable effect on the next British general election, which is required to take place by June 2010. The Labour Party is very likely to lose, and the centre-right Conservative Party very likely to win, but not for any reason connected with corruption or this scandal. This outcome looks likely because the public wants a change of government after 12 years, and of course because of Britain’s economic recession.

            Which brings me to another myth, believed by my interviewer at Il Giornale, that Britain’s recession is somehow exceptionally severe, making the British people exceptionally angry. This is simply not true. During our genuinely severe recessions in the early years of Margaret Thatcher, in 1980-82, the streets of British cities were at times filled with strikes, demonstrations and even riots. Nothing like that is happening now.

The reason is that our GDP contraction is no worse than elsewhere in Europe and that unemployment in Britain is not exceptionally high: it remains lower than the European average, and slightly lower even than in Italy. Yes, house prices have fallen by about 25% and banks have had to be rescued by the government; yes, the government budget deficit is now exceptionally large, and our public debt is increasing. But this is not causing great pain or suffering to ordinary people. The devaluation of the pound by 30% against the euro is helping our exports and manufacturers. Perhaps next year will be different, and perhaps the need for a Conservative government to raise taxes to reduce the public debt will eventually make people angry. But not yet. Sorry, Giornale.


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