Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Monty Python

Earlier this month an anonymous MP (words spoken by an actor) appeared on the Today radio programme to complain bitterly about the proposals in the Chris Kelly report to curb MPs’ greed. The fact that anonymity was regarded as necessary tells us a lot about the nature of today’s politics. Was it not dreadful, this parliamentarian lamented, that MPs, with all their responsibilities, should be paid so much less than persons in high-grade employments elsewhere? How would we be able to get adequate representatives if talented individuals could earn so much more elsewhere?

Without too much difficulty, one presumes, since there is never any shortage of people willing to offer themselves for election and it is doubtful whether the curtailment of expenses claims will affect this reality all that much. Nobody, after all, is compelled to become an MP. It is not by any means as though all parliamentary expenses are to be abolished, and on top of a not ungenerous salary they should, even in a curtailed form, be sufficient to satisfy any honest legislator. Moreover, a large number of these have other sources of income in addition.

The demand for salaries commensurate with those of top civil servants or top executives in the private or public sectors is wholly unreasonable. MPs may be subject to special restrictions and regulation, but a representative of the people is not in the same situation as a private citizen, and anybody who aspires to occupy the former role should be prepared to make appropriate sacrifices. If they are not it says something about their commitment. The legislature in the USA may be a pork barrel and a gravy train, but that is hardly a reason for the UK to adopt similar standards.

The political scene in general increasingly comes to resemble a Monty Python script. Recently the question of the Premier’s handwriting has erupted as a major issue. A crucial rail franchise, the North East line, collapses and the government is compelled to take it over. Far from seizing on this as an opportunity to restore the franchise to public ownership, the person put in charge boasts on the radio of how the line will be improved and upgraded ready for return to another set of fat cats. She sounded delighted at the prospect.

It is the same story with another North East facility, the Tyne and Wear Metro. This light railway has worked extremely well as a publicly-owned enterprise and has an excellent record. At the same time, its infrastructure needs rejuvenation and funding for this has been made conditional on privatisation. What is clear is that this government does not regard privatisation as an unwelcome necessity but is dogmatically convinced that private ownership of public assets is the preferable option. This regardless of the fact that whatever questionable advantages private capital may have in manufacture and retail, when it comes to public services it is profoundly bad news for workforces and consumers. That was predicted in advance and that is how it has worked out.

Gordon Brown is reported to be about to apologise to the people who as kids were sent to suffer abuse in Australia in previous decades. One wonders how long it will be before the same is done for refugees nowadays being deported back to torture dungeons or their deaths.

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