On a day when the BBC showed Into the Storm, and the Economist came through the letter box – and I got to read the obituary of Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief interpreter at Nuremberg – the report in the Daily Telegraph of David Wilshire’s email reply to one of his constituents beggars belief. It included the following,
“Branding a whole group of people as undesirables led to Hitler’s gas chambers,”
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the MPs’ expenses story, comparing the treatment of MPs to that of Jews in Nazi Germany is a quite astonishing thing to say. One of Mr Wilshire’s constituents has suggested that he should go now, rather than stay on until the election. He cannot be the only one.
In the introduction to my last post I touched on the orgy of apology that we have had to endure from MPs, the Speaker, the leaders of the main political parties etc. etc. Yet whether the apology is profound or passing, the overwhelming response of the man and woman in the street (or Harriet Harman’s “court of public opinion”) seems to be anger and resignation. “Sorry” (however expressed) just doesn’t seem to work any more – and the endless repetition has devalued the word to such an extent that before using it in an email to a client this morning (Shock horror! Lawyer says sorry) I wondered if he thought I would be taking the piss.
I went back to a couple of posts by Matthew Taylor in February, where he anatomised apologies: Sorry bankers – a scorecard and Bankers apology – the verdict. Taylor was writing after the appearance of Sir Fred Goodwin and others before the Treasury Select Committee. Read the posts in full: they apply as much to the expenses fiasco as to the contrite (?) bankers.
Perhaps it’s time to take a more systematic approach to apologies. After all, not all ‘sorries’ are worth much. When I worked in Number Ten, Tony Blair used occasionally to admit he’d made a mistake but only when he wished he had listened to himself earlier!
A distinction to start with when grading apologies is between apologising for the act and apologising for the consequences. Insincere apologies will tend to be weak on one or other side; either ‘I’m sorry for what happened but there was nothing I could have done about it’, or ‘I made a mistake but I’m not responsible for what happened as a result’.
I haven’t yet scored the recent apologies (and no doubt someone else will) but the visual representation of the apologies scorecard which Matt Cain produced for Matthew Taylor is very good.
I am not sure which was worse: that MPs decided to keep their allowances or that Gordon Brown and most of the cabinet stayed away, and that a number of senior cabinet ministers voted with the troughing pigs. Only five, Yvette Cooper, John Denham, Jack Straw, Des Browne and Harriet Harman voted for the reform of the arrangements.
See Nick Robinson’s post, Heroes to zeroes?.
Not that long ago, a senior Labour MP, no doubt seeking to put a gloss on the behaviour of her fellow MPs, of all parties, remarked that she believed all MPs went into politics determined to make a difference, and help people. It seems that helping oneself first is what it is really all about. But it was ever thus.
Why are we so cynical about Parliament? The answer in part lies in the almost total disregard that MPs have for all of us (not only have we voted them in, or possibly voted against them but are stuck with them) but we are also paying for them (and with most of them, their wives, husbands, mothers (thank you Mr Hain), no doubt fathers and their wider family, sons, daughters, illegitimate offspring, guide dogs, hamsters, goldfish etc.; to say nothing of the fact that with Mr Prescott most of it went down the tubes).
Anyway, see Sue Cameron’s article in the FT, Nice little earners for Mr Speaker. I cannot think of a less deserving recipient. But they are all in it: see the BBC News report on “lump sum expenses plan” for MPs. And who is leading the charge? No prizes: Gorbals Mick
Nick Robinson’s post yesterday afternoon on the continuing saga of MPs’ expenses mentioned that the Commons’ authorities had a change of mind following further legal advice. He had more to say later on the BBC Ten O’clock News. Although Nick Robinson’s report is not on the BBC website (but see Bid to block expenses questioned for the full story), probably as it delivered live to camera, he said that whereas it was unlikely that any MP would be found to have broken the law, some might feel they had no option but to go (whether at the next General Election or sooner he did not make clear) because they would be so embarrassed at the revelations about what they had spent our money on. Nick Robinson said he had been told this by a number of senior politicians.
Going back to the legal grounds for the appeal, these, according to Nick Robinson, are the security of MPs and their legitimate expectation that their information be kept secret. I rather like David Winnick’s comments at PMQs (which prompted the Speaker to intervene). According to the BBC, Winnick said if (the appeal) was just about publishing addresses “that would be perfectly understandable on grounds of security”, but if it was against the wider issue of publishing second home expenses, “it should be noted that some members, certainly myself, are very much opposed to the appeal being lodged”. He went on to say it was “unfortunate” MPs had not been given a vote on the matter. At this stage the Speaker intervened, saying the matter was sub judice (undoubtedly correct but why do I get the feeling that he was pleased about this?).