In 1986, the BBC broadcasted the sequel of its successful sitcom, “Yes Minister”, entitled of course “Yes Prime Minister”, with Jim Hacker being promoted as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In the fifth episode of the series, with the title “A Real Partnership”, the scheming Sir Humphrey (the head of the Civil Service, expertly portrayed by Sir Nigel Hawthorne) had to find a way to increase the salaries of the civil servants.
After a lot of plotting and conspiracy after conspiracy, he found the most ingenious way to bypass the problem of the MP’s approving the Civil Service pay rises. He linked the MP salaries to the civil service, so every time the Service gets a salary, they also get one automatically.
Sounds familiar? The MPs having a way of making more money out of the tax payer without having to do anything in return?
I guess the recent political scandal, 23 years after the “Yes Prime Minister” broadcast, has elements of those times; the times gone but not forgotten.
We saw most (not all, to be fair) Honourable Members of the Parliament, to claim for expenses that had nothing to do with their rent, and accommodation. Claiming for tennis courses, duck houses, chocolate bars … does not seem like a system that has been audited and that works. Some MPs were claiming all their petty cash allowance (that needed no receipts) saying they were doing us a favour, as this would not take time for a civil servant to add up and file those receipts, therefore cutting the operational cost of the Fees Office. Another forgot to inform the Fees Office that his mortgage finished a couple of years ago, and kept claiming … Now who would forget that his or her mortgage ended? Another couple were both claiming for the same “second home” … now that was an interesting one. If I am not mistaken this is a case now under investigation for fraud.
It seems that there is a lot o truth in the statement that “history repeats itself”. And it is also true that people do not learn from other people’s mistakes. Maybe that is because they do not read history, and even if they do, they miss the point of what they read. History is not just a list of events from the past, it is a way of recording the past, so we can learn from it.
I took a course in British Politics in Sheffield University a few years ago, and the professor told me that “Yes Minister” and “Yes Prime Minister” was the closest that television had ever come to the everyday reality of British politics. It was shocking, but also stimulating. The names were fictional in the series, but the events as concepts all corresponded to real situations. And it seems about a quarter of the century later, nothing has changed … only the names …
The MP expenses scandal is a very interesting case study. Most of the MPs did not “technically” break the law. They just took advantage of a bad law. What was amazing to me, was how many of them actually blamed the law or their accountants. You would expect that MPs should be able to judge for themselves if what they do is morally wrong or not. But then again … maybe it was the fault of their accountants. Apparently all the worst accountants in the UK are employed by the Members of the Parliament. That must be it.
Having said all that, I must point out, that British politics has a degree of self respect not found in many other countries. The people involved returned moneys as ordered by their party leaders, and many stated they will not run for Parliament again. Even a resignation that triggered yesterday’s Norwich North by-election. In other countries (i.e. Greece where I come from) politicians have no shame. They would not leave their positions, trying to abuse as much of public money and power as they possibly can. But the mentality of the voter’s base is not better. When people complaint about a corrupt and incapable government and two months later they re-elect the same people with even more votes, then they are (if nothing else) responsible for their fates.