Oh my, this just keeps getting bigger and bigger, doesn't it? I've been holding back on MPs' expenses, because I already laid most of it out for you guys right at the beginning when the snowball started rolling with McNulty, and because others have been saying it far better than I possibly could, including the worthy men and women at the Torygraph. But the MPs' expenses 'scandal' has now gone way beyond party politics, way beyond any individual fable of greed, curmudgeonliness and comeuppance. This public- and press response is something new. It's not just another minor yet symbolic piece of political theatre that the left-wing press are desperately trying to drum up some attention for. This rage is real, it's informed, and it's infecting everyone.
I've heard people discussing the minutiae of those Tory claims for moat maintenance at the bus-stop. I've heard muttering and kvetching over Andrew Mackay's dual-home scam whilst rummaging through the coffee-and-biscuits aisle at Sainsbury's. Yesterday I took a trip to my old stomping grounds in Brighton, and whilst I was meandering around Boots a nice lady pounced on me (steady on) and asked if I wanted my make-up done for free. She then proceeded to cheerily and somewhat absent-mindedly streak my face with pink slap whilst telling me in laborious detail about Elliot Morley MP's claim of £16,000 per year for his mortgage. 'And guess what his mortgage cost?'
I murmur my ignorance through a mouthful of alien lipstick.
'Nothing - he didn't have a mortgage!'
Upon learning that I have claims to political webcommentating, Louise (for 'twas her name) informed me that 'If you see that Mr Morley, you tell him from me never to come into this shop, unless he wants a make-up brush in his eye!'
All the parties have been quick to offer up sacrificial lambs - Shahid Malik for Labour, Andrew Mackay for the Tories. But I'm not the only one who suspects that that won't cut it, not this time, and nor will party leaders' bland, vacillating apologies. This is not a one-off gaffe. It isn't even really illegal. This has been going on for decades, over the span of countless administrations and governments, and nobody is exempt. This rage is nothing less than a reaction against the hypocrisy at the heart of our political system itself.
Not so long ago, it was an accepted fact that our political representatives would live like kings, and that our kings would live live emperors, a wide and specific hierarchial gulf between the men and women at the top of the heap and your average working stiff. Now, this week, we're questioning that. Now, this month, in this unique socio-economic atmosphere, the citizens of Britain are muttering daggers about the unfairness of it all. Muttering against hierarchy itself, as activist Tom Ogg explains in his hilarious account of doorstepping this week:
'One voter said upon seeing the rosette, "sorry, I've not got any 800 pound TVs here, no gardeners to put on expenses, and definitely no pornography". I don't get any expenses either, I reply. Do you have any problems in the area, anything we can help with, I ask? "Well," he said, "you could start by stringing up a few MPs up the lamposts". Slam.'
It's brilliant, it's invigorating, and it's slightly frightening. So instead of rehashing what everybody's saying, I'm going to ask the specific question that a lot of people are wondering. If we're this angry, this stutteringly and suddenly outraged about the unfairness of the Westminster remuneration system, when is the great and terrible finger of public opinion going to swing round to the one politician who claims more from the public purse, gratuity free and without a murmur of discontent so far, than any of the others put together? When are they going to go after the Queen? The Queen receives a great many millions from the public purse and the civil list every year. She's allowed to, but so are the politicians. She's less explicitly a public servant, but since 1649 it's been pretty damn clear that our hereditary monarchs are here on our sufferance. If anyone thought any different deep down, there's a chance that the Queen might have once, ever, in her 57 year reign, have intervened in affairs of state or expressed her personal political opinion in a public forum. Will the press go so far as to extend the dissent to the very top?
Where's it going to end? Sunny has some worthy suggestions for cleaning up politics, but the critics are right to suggest that the rage of the make-up-counter-lady on the street is more nebulous than that: most people are not sure what they want to see happen now, and you can count me amongst them in the certain knowledge that I'm not going to get my benevolent revolution of the people before teatime. But equally, the naysayers are wrong to suggest that just because public anger is vague, that means that it's not powerful. On the contrary.
Much as I hate to sound like a hacky hack hack, whatever his shortcomings, Barack Obama acheived something monumental in November, and he did it by harnessing and soundbiting and t-shirting a nation's desire for change. Sometimes, when things have got bad enough and people are frightened enough of where their leaders might take them, any change is enough. Anything, anyone, as long as they behave more decently and nobly than the old order. The mood on the streets of Britain is that same universal dissatisfaction, that same hunger for a new way of life, that allowed the remarkable to unfold across the pond.
And I think we're starting to want it here, too. We're starting to understand that something at the heart of Westminster is rotten enough that it cannot be purged by a simple game of New-Cameronite Switcheroo. I don't doubt that His Pink and Shininess will be in the hotseat by 2011, but we know, now, that there's more to it than that. The pressure is mounting in England's green and garish land; a storm's coming. And when it breaks, the left will need to be ready with answers. There's work to do.
(pic: Elliot Morley orders the veal, courtesy of The Torygraph).